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New standards, but what’s changed?

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When students return to school this fall, the math and language arts lessons they’re taught will be based on a new set of academic standards; but they shouldn’t notice much of a difference.

As students study math, language arts and other core subjects, they’ll continue to focus on developing their critical thinking skills, just as they’ve done for the past three years.

Today, the State Board of Education will vote whether to adopt a new set of academic standards for Indiana. Those standards will replace Common Core, which state lawmakers opted to drop and replace earlier this year.

Local school officials are taking their first look at the standards now, and they’ll spend the summer reviewing them line by line, comparing them with Common Core and Indiana’s previous standards to see whether teachers in any grades need to change what they teach students and how.

So far, administrators aren’t seeing any requirements that would cause teachers to have to change what students already are learning, according to Clark-Pleasant director of curriculum and instruction Cameron Rains, Greenwood assistant superintendent of learning Rick Ahlgrim and Franklin executive director of curriculum and instruction Deb Brown-Nally.

“At the end of the day, there’s a limited, finite number of critical skill sets that students must master in both math and language arts in order to numerate and to be literate,” Ahlgrim said.

“And you can chop and dice them however you want to, but you’re still going to have to come back to kids’ need to know how to be comfortable counting, they have to be comfortable knowing how to manipulate numbers, and they have to be comfortable knowing how to apply that skill.”

The biggest problem with the new standards is that they’re only just now on the verge of being approved, leaving schools months instead of years to review them, Ahlgrim said. State law requires new standards to be in place by July 1, and schools must begin using them in the fall.

Local schools started using Common Core-based lessons and assignments with some of their elementary and high school students in 2011 and had planned to use those lessons and assignments with students in all grades this fall. Schools started updating their math and language arts lessons and began including more critical thinking assignments.

For example, it wasn’t enough for students to know that five times five equals 25 or when Christopher Columbus discovered America. They also needed to be able to deconstruct multiplication problems, showing their teacher they understood how the problems worked, and they also had to answer questions about why Columbus set sail and the different outcomes of his trip, Ahlgrim said.

Those are the kinds of critical thinking skills students need to be successful in college and their careers, and those skills are still included in the new standards, Rains and Ahlgrim said. In fact, state officials who wrote the proposed standards have faced criticism from some groups who believe they’re the same as Common Core but with a different name.

Indiana is the first state in the nation to drop Common Core. Right now, 45 other states are set to begin using lessons and tests based on Common Core, though others also are considering dropping the standards.

The biggest change for students will likely come next spring and in the spring of 2015-2016, when students are tested on what they’ve learned during the school year and how prepared they are for college and careers, Brown-Nally said.

Students will take ISTEP and a second college and career readiness test that hasn’t been written yet next spring. The following year, students likely will take a different exam, which also hasn’t been created yet, meaning teachers don’t know over what their students will be tested, Brown-Nally and Rains said.

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