Proposed Indiana school standards get mixed reviews

Experts and officials are giving mixed reviews to proposed education standards that could replace the rejected national Common Core guidelines in Indiana classrooms, just days before a panel of education leaders is set to vote on them.

Debate on the new standards comes as the state races to create before July new, state-written benchmarks for what students should learn in each grade. Gov. Mike Pence in March signed off on legislation to nix the national guidelines in the Common Core.

Indiana was among the first of 45 states to adopt those math and English standards in 2010 in an effort to create consistency across state borders and raise the bar for students, but many conservatives have since criticized the initiative as a top-down takeover of local schools.

To formally leave the Common Core, the State Board of Education must find a replacement. Proposed standards months in the making are up for an Education Roundtable vote Monday — the last step needed before they're up for final board approval.

But experts and board members still are divided on the merit of the latest proposed benchmarks, which were released to officials Monday evening and to the public Tuesday morning.

Some tout their clarity and focus on depth of knowledge, while others say they're still too similar to the Common Core or "nonsensical."

Board member David Freitas called them "uncommonly rigorous," but also praised their departure from the national standards criticized by many tea party members and other advocates of local control.

"They prevent unnecessary intrusion in our schools by the federal government," Freitas said in a statement. "And they rightly cede authority to local school leaders and communities to determine their own curriculum."

But one Common Core opponent said the standards still closely resemble those benchmarks.

"I really don't think the people doing this understand what's wrong with the Common Core or know how to fix it," said Terrence Moore, an assistant professor of history at Hillsdale College.

He said drafters for the most part ignored his review of the last draft, which in part questioned the lack of classic literature recommendations.

Board member Cari Whicker, a sixth grade teacher in Huntington, only has reviewed the English standards for sixth grade so far but said she's pleased with what she's seen.

Teachers at her school are using a blend of former Indiana standards and Common Core already because of the now-paused transition to the national benchmarks. She said expectations in the proposal are similar to what's already happening in her classroom.

"There is a movement toward understanding that we need to see growth from everyone, and not just the kids who pass the tests," she said. "What I see is more of a true goal of scaffolding kids who are low and at the same time pushing kids who are already at grade level to pass that."

Board member Brad Oliver and other experts also praised that scaffolding, which they say is shown in a side-by-side breakdown of how learning standards advance from grade to grade in math and English. Oliver said the standards also promote deeper understanding in a classroom from the start to finish of a school year.

Stanford University emeritus professor of mathematics James Milgram said the math guidelines for children in the lower grades are solid, but they "fall apart completely" in high school — a sentiment other experts shared.

"I'm really very, very disappointed," said Milgram, who reviewed the earlier draft as well. "There were more errors in this version than in the previous."

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