Achieve Provides Indiana With ‘Honest, Tough’ Review

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — February 09, 2000 4 min read
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Indiana’s academic standards are clear, concise, jargon-free, and generally well-aligned with the state’s assessments, an independent review has found. But the guidelines for what students should learn in each grade have a low level of rigor compared with those of some other states, content is repeated across and within grades, and the tests are not as challenging as they should be, the analysis concludes.

The evaluation of the state’s English/language arts and mathematics programs by the nonprofit organization Achieve Inc. is highly critical in many respects. It suggests that Indiana needs to make significant revisions if its state benchmarks are to meet world-class standards.

Still, Indiana officials said the review provides the kind of constructive feedback they need as they prepare to restructure the subject-area guidelines.

“We didn’t expect a rosy report. There are aspects of the report that if you had thin skin you would be fairly resentful,” said Larry Grau, the education policy adviser to Gov. Frank L. O’Bannon. But, he added, “for any state that is serious about improving their standards, this is worthwhile.”

Critical Analysis

The report, “Measuring Up: A Report on Education Standards and Assessments for Indiana,” is the first since Achieve evaluated state content guidelines and tests in Michigan and North Carolina in a 1997 pilot project.

The current report may help to allay concerns expressed by some observers that the Cambridge, Mass.-based organization, created by governors and business leaders for the promotion and improvement of state standards, would have difficulty striking a balance between objective analysis and loyalty to state improvement efforts.

“The challenge for us is to be both honest and tough, but also constructive,” said Matthew Gandal, Achieve’s director of standards and assessments. “We want the reports to help states to strengthen what they are doing, not lead to the destruction of what they’re doing.”

Officials in Indiana said they were not worried that the Achieve report would harm their efforts. “We have really prepared an aggressive agenda for development and implementation and assessment of standards,” said Suellen Reed, Indiana’s schools chief. “We wanted to redo our standards on an informed basis ... and this [report] will help us to move ahead.”

The standards were compared with those of other states— Arizona, California, Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Texas—and Japan, which Achieve officials and other experts say have many model features. The state tests, the Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress, or ISTEP, were evaluated according to how well they measure the content and skills outlined in the standards and their level of challenge.

Need Improvement

According to the report, the Indiana standards in both subject areas are strong in some respects, but they do not always follow a clear progression of knowledge from grade to grade, are missing some key content, and often underestimate students’ academic abilities at different grade levels.

In language arts, for example, some basic grammar principles are introduced as late as 5th grade, while students in Massachusetts are expected to master similar material by 3rd grade. Indiana students are not expected to learn some elementary- and middle-level spelling tasks until the 12th grade.

In math, there is little differentiation among standards that call for students to interpret various graphs in grades 5-7. Moreover, the standards emphasize problem-solving and critical-thinking skills at the expense of traditional content, the reviewers say.

One reason for the overlap is the reorganization of standards last year to grade-by- grade guidelines. Previously, the document was arranged for clusters of grades. The state intends to rewrite the documents in math and English by next year to make them more challenging. State tests that provide a better gauge of students’ mastery of the subject matter are expected to follow within a few years.

Members of the governor’s education roundtable—which Mr. O’Bannon and Ms. Reed co-chair—are expected to make recommendations based on the Achieve report later this year. The group of educators, business leaders, parents, and community members is also discussing what professional development, remediation, and other support initiatives are needed to help the state’s nearly 1 million students meet higher standards and pass high- stakes tests.

Achieve is working on similar evaluations for Illinois, Oregon, and Pennsylvania, which are due out within the next few months, but release of the information is left to the discretion of state officials. The organization is also trying to persuade other states to undergo the scrutiny of outside experts to determine the rigor and quality of their standards and assessments. Although costs vary, Indiana spent about $65,000 for Achieve’s services, which included a summer training program.

While such critical feedback might be unwelcome in some states, some observers say that this kind of detailed report could be helpful to educators and policymakers seeking honest feedback on their improvement efforts.

“A key issue with this kind of report is readiness,” said William A. Firestone, a professor of educational policy at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. Other reports that grade all the states, and which provide unsolicited feedback, may “raise a low level of anxiety if you get a [grade of] B or C on your standards. But whether [a report] gets any more attention depends on whether there is the political will in a state to do something about it.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 09, 2000 edition of Education Week as Achieve Provides Indiana With ‘Honest, Tough’ Review


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