All eyes on Indiana: More lessons to be learned

A couple of years ago, Fordham held a contest to determine the most reformed state in the land. To almost no one’s surprise, Indiana—under the leadership of Governor Mitch Daniels and State Superintendent Tony Bennett—raced to victory. Indiana was held up as a model of education reform, and we encouraged other states to follow its path. Today, we again ask you to look to Indiana—but for precisely the opposite reason.

Hoosier State legislators, like those in Ohio, have come under increasing pressure from a small, vocal set of Common Core State Standards (CCSS) critics urging the state to repeal their adoption of the standards. Indiana acceded to their demands as Governor Mike Pence signed legislation on March 24 making Indiana the only state in the nation to formally withdraw its participation in the CCSS. And in what happened next, there are lessons to be learned for Ohio legislators who think there are political or educational benefits associated with exiting the CCSS.

First, states need to have standards in place, but good standards take time to develop. Indiana’s crash course in standards-writing over the past couple of months, aimed at having new standards in place this fall, has left almost everyone disappointed and frustrated. Critics of Indiana’s go-it-alone approach have suggested that the changes were nothing more than a rebranding of the CCSS. Educators, meanwhile, are also feeling the pressure: the Republic quoted Indiana State Teachers Association Vice President Keith Gambill as saying, “Any delay past that time (April 28 meeting to approve new standards) really then puts the professionals in a compromised position. At some point in time, there has to be: This is it.”

Second, when a state changes its standards, no assessments aligned with the newly adopted standards exist. This is the case right now in Indiana. Stop for a moment and think about the myriad ways we use assessment scores today. The primary reason remains to evaluate whether students are learning what they are expected to at each grade level. This is especially critical for key points, such as the third grade (due to the third-grade reading guarantee) and upon high-school graduation, but it also allows teachers to identify students who are struggling or excelling and to provide extra supports as necessary. Ohio also uses assessment results to calculate school and district grades and as a factor in teacher evaluations. Backing away from results-based accountability would do nothing for Ohio’s children in the long run and would be frustrating to educators, parents, and taxpayers alike.

Third, simply rewriting standards doesn’t ensure the result will be higher-quality standards. In fact, Indiana’s substitute standards are not only worse in terms of content and rigor than the Common Core, but they are also worse than Indiana’s old, pre-CCSS standards (which were quite good, though never well implemented). And if you think CCSS critics think differently, think again: Stanford professor James Milgram, a high-profile CCSS critic, called Indiana’s new standards “pretty much a complete mess” and noted that “they are repetitive and horribly disorganized.”

It is worth noting that because Indiana had high-quality standards before its adoption of the CCSS, reverting to its previous standards is a viable option. Ohio, on the other hand, had mediocre state standards previously and would pretty much be starting anew, were it to abandon the CCSS in math and English language arts.

Fourth, switching standards without really knowing what to do next is a waste of money. A report last year from Indiana’s nonpartisan legislative staff estimated tens of millions of dollars in costs to adopt new tests, plus ongoing costs to administer them. That’s not even counting money already spent—by districts as well as the state—on teacher training, textbook purchases, and so on, in addition to the funds that must be found to do it all over again to match the new standards.

Ohio legislators should learn from their brethren to the west. Indiana, at the behest of critics, decided to stop utilizing the CCSS, and the results—while predictable—have left many shaking their heads. Nearly everyone is unhappy with the new draft standards, be they friend or foe to the CCSS. Educators are concerned about the lack of standards and aligned assessments, the new standards themselves are generally seen as inferior, and the state looks likely to spend a lot of money on implementation without knowing exactly where its next step will fall. There don’t appear to have been any gains educationally or politically in Indiana. Ohio would do well to avoid such chaos.

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