CommonCoreArt
Schools have been implementing Common Core teaching strategies in elementary grades since 2011. (Alan Petersime)

(This post is one in a series exploring the basics of key issues in education in Indiana. For a list of the issues and links to the other posts, see this story on why Indiana matters when it comes to education.)

Indiana was an early adopter of national Common Core standards, but, after a change in the political dynamic, the state’s commitment to the Common Core is now in doubt.

At the legislature’s behest, the Indiana State Board of Education will hold hearings on the question of whether to stick with Common Core in 2014 and must vote either to reaffirm the plan to adopt them or to create new state-designed standards.

In 2010, Indiana was a leading state in pushing for Common Core adoption.

Common Core is a set of academic standards developed by an association of state governors aimed at ensuring students graduate high school ready to enter college or begin careers. Supporters say the standards raise expectations and will make students more internationally competitive.

But some Indiana critics have argued the standards are not as strong as they are billed to be and that they reduce local control over curriculum because they are too strongly connected to the priorities of the U.S. Department of Education. Others complain that Common Core perpetuates a standardized testing focus in schools.

At the urging of two of its high profile champions, former Gov. Mitch Daniels and former state Superintendent Tony Bennett, the Indiana State Board of Education adopted the standards as its own in 2010 with little fanfare. But a growing backlash against Common Core has prompted the state to reconsider whether it will stick with it.

.Implementation is “paused”

In Indiana, the initial effort to reconsider Common Core in 2012 petered out in the legislature. Common Core had strong support at the time from Daniels, Bennett, key legislative leaders and all 11 members of the Indiana State Board of Education.

But in 2013, opposition to the Common Core had grown. New Gov. Mike Pence has said he is uncertain about the Common Core while new state Superintendent Glenda Ritz favored a re-evaluation of the standards. State Sen. Dennis Kruse, who chairs the senate’s education committee, announced he no longer supported the Common Core. An opposition group, led by a pair of Indianapolis moms, pushed lawmakers to step back from Common Core.

Ultimately, lawmakers approved a bill that “paused” implementation of the Common Core, requiring the state education department to study the standards and make recommendations. The state board of education, which has been overhauled with more than half the members newly appointed by Pence, must take a new vote on Common Core in 2014.

Indiana has committed to adopting “college and career ready” standards as part of an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education that released the state from some of the accountability requirements of the 2002 federal No Child Left Behind law. So if Indiana dumps Common Core, any new standards would likely have to adhere to many of the same principles.

What’s tested is taught

Some school districts have already implemented the Common Core for all grades. But the state’s recommended implementation schedule had only required Common Core standards through second grade as of 2013.

State tests begin at third grade. So the original plan called for new Common Core linked tests in 2014-15. Indiana was originally part of the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC), one of two consortia of states creating Common Core linked tests, and had planned to adopt PARCC tests in place of the state ISTEP exam in 2014-15. But in the summer of 2013, new Gov. Mike Pence announced Indiana would withdraw from PARCC and seek a different approach for testing.

Schools that have already begun teaching Common Core standards have raised concerns that uncertainty about what direction Indiana will chose makes it difficult for them to assure students are prepared for any new tests and, in some cases, is causing them to teach to two sets of standards.

New tests could be costly

There is also the issue of the future cost of testing. The Indiana Office of Management and Budget in the summer of 2013 produced a fiscal impact study that showed the state could save some money if it used Common Core tests produced by the consortia rather than adapting ISTEP or creating their new tests.

In 2013-14, Indiana will spend about $34.3 million to administer ISTEP. OMB found the cost would be less — between 31.4 million and $33.2 million — if the state simply adopted Common Core tests built by one of the consortia. Reworking ISTEP to qualify it as “college and career ready,” or creating a new home-grown state test, would cost about $34.7 million, or more than any other option, the OMB reported.

And there’s one more wrinkle in the problem of deciding on new tests. The bill that paused Common Core implementation also unintentionally created a conflict. Current law could require the state to administer two tests in 2014-15 — the ISTEP and new college and career tests — a problem that the OMB estimated would nearly double the state’s testing costs to $57.4 million. Legislative leaders have vowed to fix the law to avoid that problem in early 2014.

Reactions aren’t clear

An added difficulty for politicians and policymakers is a lack of information about how those affected — students, parents, teachers and taxpayers — genuinely feel about the question of whether the state should adopt Common Core standards.

Consider two polls released in the fall of 2013 with opposite results.

One poll was conducted by the Republican Party with the primary goal of assessing Pence’s popularity. It reported 32 percent of the registered voters surveyed supported Common Core. But just days later, a second poll came from the Indiana office of the national group Stand For Children, which has advocated for Common Core. It found 68 percent of Hoosiers surveyed supported instituting Common Core in the state.

Some legislative leaders question the accuracy of any Common Core poll results because they believe only educators and those involved in politics are closely following the debate. But Indiana will get several chances in 2014 to hear more about it. Lawmakers could dip their toes into the issue again when the legislative session begins in January. By the spring, there will be public feedback meetings to gather input on what standards Indiana should follow.

By July, the state board will decide whether it will keep going with Common Core or move in a new direction.