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Shaina Cavazos

Teachers tackle new standards but worry about tests

It’s no longer a surprise to Indiana teachers when the state decides to change its expectations for what kids should learn.

But this year’s switch to new academic standards did have one new element: a political battle in which the governor, state legislature and even the public wanted to weigh in.

The four-month standards debate didn’t end until Gov. Mike Pence and state Superintendent Glenda Ritz, political foes in most education debates, jointly endorsed new standards and pushed them them through two state boards last April. That left teachers just more than three months to learn the standards, alter their lessons and prepare for big accompanying changes to the state’s ISTEP test that will affect all students in grades 3 to 8.

“It’s literally like preparing for a football game and then you go play basketball,” said Shari Switzer, director of curriculum in Franklin Township. “We can prepare with what we have, but we haven’t played the game yet.”

And it’s not just a new style of learning teachers and students have to get used to. This spring, students will see an ISTEP test with questions unlike any they’ve seen before.

That has teachers, who must raise those scores to qualify for pay raises, on edge.

It’s not like teachers haven’t been here before. They usually have to adjust for new ones about every six years. But this year is different. Indiana spent three years getting ready to use shared Common Core standards along with other states, and now has decided to abruptly switch directions for new Indiana-specific standards. Teachers who’d usually have at least a year to transition now have had only a few months.

Even so, teachers across Marion County say they’ve embraced the challenge and, so far, it’s going OK.

“We learn from it, and tweak it, and make it ours, and pretty soon it feels like normal,” said fourth grade teacher Sonya Weber of Washington Township’s John Strange Elementary School. “The change seems big today, and in two years, it’ll feel pretty normal.”

Few, if any, of Weber’s students or their John Strange Elementary classmates have probably heard a word about standards and the debate that made headlines and sparked passionate disagreements among adults.

But when standards change, kids are affected.

A change in guidelines can prompt teachers to switch teaching strategies or try new approaches, which means children definitely come away from the school year learning some concepts differently than the way their parents, or even their older siblings, learned them in the past.

Embracing, then rejecting, Common Core

Weber knows standard have impact because she’s seen a difference in her own children.

When her twin son and daughter were in kindergarten three years ago, they came home using mathematics words she’d only ever heard third- and fourth-graders using before, such as calling the corner of a shape a “vertex” or a dot a “decimal.”

The change was born out of work Lawrence Township schools, where her children go to school, had done to adjust after Indiana’s 2010 adoption of Common Core standards, which were designed to try to better prepared for college and careers after high school.

“I found it encouraging,” she said. “At first, I didn’t think it would happen, but watching my own kids come home and do it — how about that? They truly rise to expectations.”

Indiana was one of the first states to adopt the Common Core State Standards under then-Governor Mitch Daniels and then-state superintendent Tony Bennett in 2010. Eventually 45 other states signed on to implement Common Core.

Those standards were endorsed by a group of mostly Republican state governors, who hoped they would push American children to better compete with children in other nations, who increasingly out-score the U.S. on international tests of math and language.

Soon after President Obama took office in 2008, the U.S. Department of Education began encouraging states to follow Common Core, eventually even asking states to agree in writing to adopt Common Core or other “college and career ready” standards.

That’s when critics began to raise doubts.

In Indiana, a backlash sparked a legislative debate in 2013 about whether the state should stick with Common Core or return to crafting its own standards as it had done in the past. Opposition to Common Core grew this year to include Gov. Mike Pence and key legislative leaders, who said following them gave too much power to those outside the state in deciding what Indiana children should learn.

Ritz, who had mobilized teams of educators to evaluate Common Core, joined with Pence in asking those teams to instead craft new standards. That process drew unusual attention, as the backlash against Common Core grew nationally and focused more attention on Indiana. Common Core protesters thought they too closely resembled Common Core. Former allies of Daniels and Bennett, who wanted to keep Common Core, thought the Indiana standards were a just watered down version that would weaken their impact.

For teachers the political debate was both baffling and frustrating.

Eric Nentrup, the e-learning coach at Center Grove High School, said Indiana’s battle over Common Core is, and always has been, entirely political. That debate wasted valuable time that teachers could’ve spent better elsewhere, he said.

“It just demands more efforts of the teaching staff,” Nentrup said.

Politicians and those outside of education also don’t understand how standards function in schools — they change all the time, and they don’t dictate what kids are taught he said. They are guidelines.

“It feels like the argument is that we’re going to get it right this time and it will be right forever,” Nentrup said. “But it’s a living document, not the gospel, and it’s not all-encompassing.”

But Missy Burnside, research and data coordinator at Pike Township, having a political debate at the statehouse over what is usually a local process created a lot of confusion.

“I think in the minds of people, it’s local decision-making and local, but now all of a sudden now we’re talking about everybody across the U.S. doing the same thing,” Burnside said. “I think that’s probably what’s gotten the attention going. I think standards have always been talked about in education circles, and now it’s going beyond education circles.”

Parallels to Common Core

For many teachers, changing standards just as they were getting comfortable with the Common Core was frustrating. But as they got a look at Indiana’s new standards, some are feeling reassured.

“The new Indiana academic standards, honestly, they don’t look much different compared to Common Core,” said Linka Pace, a literacy coach at Eastwood Middle School in Washington Township. “They’re organized a little differently, but as a classroom teacher, I am very OK with that because we were already preparing that.”

It also made her wonder about all the time and effort spent to produce standards that Indiana could call its own.

“As a taxpayer, I’m a little like ‘It’s just a repackaged and renamed bill of goods,’” Pace said.

So all the Common Core preparation schools have been doing since 2010 aren’t going to waste. Instead of having to overhaul curriculum completely, most schools have just had to make smaller updates to guides teachers use to plan lessons to account for the new standards. Districts also used summer training sessions to help teachers and administrators prepare.

Ryan Russell, a Warren Township assistant superintendent, said his district had about 150 teachers who spent from 40 to 100 hours over the summer altering curriculum and preparing for the new standards. Cindy Huffman, curriculum director at Pike Township, said her district also used the summer to prepare teachers for new standards.

In fact, the conversion was fairly routine across the county.

“Updating is something we do every summer,” Judy Stegemann, chief academic officer for Wayne Township, said. “We see curriculum as ever-changing. It’s a process, you never arrive, it’s always a journey.”

Changes in the classroom

Teachers are adjusting their strategies to fit the standards, however. Consider Weber’s new approach to teaching fourth grade vocabulary.

Whereas students might have had to memorize lists of words in the past, now they work on figuring out where the words come from and how to apply that knowledge to learning other words.

For example, in trying to help a student learn the meaning of the word “autograph,” Weber covers the second half of the word, showing only “auto.”

“Don’t we know this word?” she asks.

Because her class studies Greek and Latin word origins, they know “auto” is derived from the Greek word for “self.” “Graph” is a Greek word they learned means “a representation of something.” Putting them together, students roughly get “self-representation,” or a basic understanding of a word we use today to describe writing your name.

The new standards make bigger changes in math, especially for high chool, where some skills will now be taught a year later, said Sandy Baker, the district math specialist in Pike Township. For example, Baker said, the old Indiana standards taught the pythagorean theorem in seventh grade, whereas Common Core and the new Indiana standards will teach it in eighth grade. Moving that concept later means students have more time to learn where the formula comes from and what it means.

High school math students will spend more time learning statistics and probability, not prioritized in the old standards, because analysis and reasoning are more central to what students will learn going forward, said Audrey Bush, a math teacher at Warren Central High School in Warren Township.

“Even though we’re not Common Core anymore, the Indiana academic standards as well want us to work more with students being active with their learning rather than the teacher just up there presenting,” Bush said. “That’s not all new, but the way we’re doing it is new. We’re trying to help them experience the math more and draw conclusions.”

That emphasis extends to the lower grades, and Weber said she has seen a difference in how quickly her students make big picture connections by learning tools like word roots and algebra concepts even in fourth grade.

“I get giddy excited about it,” she said.

Missing tests raise concerns

Learning to become better at problem-solving and analysis doesn’t just take new ways of teaching, but also new ways of testing.

Next spring, Indiana students will take a modified version of the ISTEP test that includes new computer-based test questions that are designed to try to better determine what kids are learning from the new standards.

But when there are changes in the state test, it’s not uncommon for student scores to drop at first. In Indiana, where test scores drive A to F grades for schools and evaluations scores that determine whether teachers get raises, the tight deadline the state has set for such a complex process has raised concerns.

Usually, when standards are adjusted and schools are expected to use them, new tests already exist. Indiana teachers have the standards, but so far, no new state accountability tests based on them.

For elementary and middle school students, that’s ISTEP, which is will be updated for spring 2015 and completely scrapped for a brand-new test in 2016. For high school students, it means adding an updated section to the existing Algebra I and 10th-grade English end-of-course exams.

The state has released blueprints about the tests — a guide of how much of each standard will be covered on the test — but not specific test question examples. It’s a problem because students have never seen the new question formats before.

New “technology-enhanced” test questions will ask students to manipulate graphics on a screen, enter formulas to solve math word problems or supplement multiple choice answers by highlighting text they used to answer the question.

It’s not easy for teachers to prepare students to answer questions they’ve never seen when the test begins in just six months. Practice ISTEP exams haven’t been updated either.

Joel Thomas, assistant principal at the Indianapolis Lighthouse charter school, said preparing students for ISTEP under these conditions is so much of a burden that it requires one more unexpected task for teachers: “get them OK with the idea of failure.”

Some students, he said, will do worse on the new test the first time through simply because the tests are new.

But most teachers said they can’t make the tests come faster or predict how they’ll look, so they just have to do the best they can. They’ll make sure their lessons reflect the new standards and cover as much as they can in the time that they have.

And for some, the change has been pretty painless, said Sue Keene, a third-grade teacher at West Newton Elementary School in Decatur Township. She’s seen her students growing and learning, and transitioning to standards she believes have higher expectations has made her more thoughtful about her teaching. Sometimes, the change is even the part of her job she loves most.

“Every year is different and the kids are different,” Keene said. “This might be my 39th year in third grade, but it’s the first year for them.”