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Indiana’s big test score gains prompt debate over cause

Indiana fourth graders made big gains on a national test of reading and math known as the “nation’s report card,” according to data released today.

Indiana’s 2013 gains were top five among the 50 states on both fourth grade reading and math. Eighth graders posted smaller gains in both reading and math. Hoosier test takers scored above the national average on all four exams administered.

““I am encouraged by the gains that Hoosier students showed on these tests, particularly their gains in the fourth grade,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz said in a statement. “This is yet another sign of the hard work and dedication exhibited by our educators, administrators, parents, and most importantly, students every day in our schools.”

The state’s success instantly renewed debate about reforms pushed by former Gov. Mitch Daniels and ex-state Superintendent Tony Bennett over four years beginning in 2008.

Bennett was defeated in the 2012 election in a stunning upset by current state Superintendent Glenda Ritz. Eric A. Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University, said Bennett’s fight for reform may have cost him his job but it appears to have yielded improvements.

“I think we’re starting to see results,” said Eric A. Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. “These battles are hard-fought, and if we didn’t see any results, then we might wonder if it’s worth it.”

Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, attributed the gains to standards reform in the early 2000s, specifically rejecting Bennett and Daniels’ policies as a reason for the improvement.

“The work started long before,” Meredith said. “It was prior to Tony Bennett. In my mind this does not attribute anything positive necessarily to his tenure. It doesn’t negate him it. It just doesn’t support him.”

In an interview, Bennett rejected Meredith’s analysis. The children who took the fourth grade tests weren’t born when the standards were reworked a decade ago, he said, and during that period, the state saw mostly small gains.

“My answer is, what changed?” he said. “Mitch Daniels had a vision to make Indiana’s education system a pillar of his administration, and we passed some pretty bold reforms. I think the policy framework we put in place afforded schools the opportunity to expect more of children, and I applaud the fact our children have answered that call.”

Daniel Altman, a spokesman for Ritz, said nobody should try to claim credit for the good results.

“It is disappointing but not surprising that people are trying to politicize these results,” Altman said. “Today’s news should be about celebrating the hard work put in by our teachers and students every day, not politics.”

The tests, known formally as the National Assessment of Education Progress, or NAEP, are given every two years in math and reading to a sample of fourth and eighth graders in every state. Indiana’s scores have made strong gains in math over the last decade, but mostly smaller gains in reading.

Across the country, Tennessee, Hawaii, and the District of Columbia saw the biggest across-the-board gains this year, though scores for Washington, D.C., especially still rank among the nation’s lowest. Tennessee and Washington, D.C., saw unusually dramatic gains across both grades and subjects. (See Chalkbeat Tennessee’s story on that stat’s best-in-the-nation gains here.)

U.S. Secretary of State Arne Duncan attributed the variations among states to what he called “extraordinary leadership” at the state level from officials who have “done some very difficult and courageous work” raising standards.

That praise, Hanushek said, should extend to Indiana.

“This certainly suggests strongly that some of the things they were trying to do have in fact taken hold and have in fact led to some improvement,” he said.

Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis and chair of the House Education Committee, said credit for better fourth-grade reading scores lies with the IREAD third grade reading test and a rule that prevented some kids from being promoted if they failed it.

“I think it validates that we have a lot of great teachers and hopefully the reforms can take some credit for the successes that we’ve had,” he said. “You’d have to tie IREAD to that. It’s been in place for a couple of years.”

But Meredith said when she was teaching kindergarten, it was Indiana’s new standards that made the biggest change in her classroom.

“This wasn’t just in the last two or three years,” she said. “This was long term. It made me, as a kindergarten teacher, really think about every thing I did.”

Standards are back at the center of education debates in Indiana, as legislators have asked the Indiana State Board of Education to reexamine its commitment to national Common Core standards that the state adopted in 2010.

Duncan, speaking about the national results, emphasized that none of the eight states that adopted Common Core standards earliest saw statistically significant score decreases between 2009 and 2013 — though many of those states didn’t see big increases, either.

“We’re not seeing yet the transformational change nationwide, but we are seeing meaningful, but generally modest progress,” Duncan said.

Meredith said the NAEP scores show that Indiana’s prior standards were good and some of them probably should be maintained as the state adopts Common Core.

“I think it highlights that our standards have been rigorous,” she said. “It’s not a judgement positive or negative on Common Core. We should ask what was significant to teachers, and is it in Common Core? If not, it needs to be included.”