There is so much debate circulating here in Indiana about how our existing state ELA Standards document compares to the Common Core. Many critics have focused their attention on what they perceive to be limitations of the Common Core—too much focus on informational text (particularly for secondary English teachers); scant attention to the characteristics of specific literary and nonfiction sub-genres; and a lack of standards-specific instructional examples to help teachers identify how the standards might play out in the context of the classroom. While I would contend that the differences between the two standards documents are less dramatic than many would contend (more on this in a future post), this debate fails to take into account the pivotal role our state assessment, ISTEP+, plays in our efforts to improve the quality of teaching and learning in our schools.
Low quality state assessments will mitigate the educative effects of even the best standards. Indiana’s ELA Standards have been reviewed by Fordham and others as some of the best in the nation, but it’s all for naught unless the state decides to make significant improvements to its current state assessment. Take for example the excellent 6-8th grade opinion writing standards that are part of Indiana’s current standards framework. They are rigorous, detailed and clear (and, by the way, they are very comparable to the Common Core’s 6-8th grade opinion writing standards). However, Indiana doesn’t assess opinion writing on ISTEP+. So how much attention does opinion writing receive in a typical middle school ELA curriculum compared to narrative writing, which is the only type of writing Indiana assesses on its exam (check out this 8th grade sample ISTEP+ prompt, found on the IN DOE web site, entitled “What It Takes to Be a Baker”)? Even great teachers and curriculum directors can’t escape the tendency to use the state assessment to inform curriculum decisions. In this ongoing debate over which standards document is best for the students in our state, let’s think long and hard about whether and how our state assessment will bring out the best of what the standards have to offer.