COLUMBIA — A years-long effort by state officials to help create standardized tests for South Carolina’s public schools might become moot, leaving uncertain how students will be tested next spring.
More than 350 schools across 67 districts were slated to conduct a trial run this spring of the “Smarter Balanced” tests that will determine students’ proficiency in math and reading standards known as Common Core. The practice run for 2015 began March 25 in South Carolina and 21 other states that helped develop the tests using federal grants.
But legislation approved 89-9 by the House on Thursday would force the state to withdraw from the consortium and ban use of the tests. A similar bill has been advanced to the Senate floor, though a senator is blocking debate.
The bills are considered a compromise to efforts to throw out the Common Core standards altogether, four years after their adoption by two state boards. The concepts for what students in each grade level should know in math and reading have already been rolled out in classrooms statewide. Full implementation – to include testing aligned to the standards – is slated for next school year. The compromise keeps Common Core in place, at least for a few years pending a state review, but requires leaving Smarter Balanced.
State Superintendent Mick Zais opposes Common Core, saying it expects children to learn at the same rate, but he also previously opposed leaving the consortium.
“I want the cheapest, best test that’s available. Right now, that’s Smarter Balanced,” he said in a recent interview. “I am totally open to other options. We are not wedded to Smarter Balanced, but right now it’s the best and least expensive option.”
Days earlier, the agency’s director of assessment told a Senate panel that 11 employees have worked three years on the Smarter Balanced tests. Zais’ spokesman, Dino Teppara, told senators that to toss the test but not the underlying standards creates confusion.
Yet, on April 3, the Department of Education notified districts of the agency’s intention to pull out of Smarter Balanced, citing the pending legislation. More than a week after field testing started, schools were given the option of not participating after all.
The memo and its timing angered state Board of Education members, who voted 9-4 on Wednesday to stay in the consortium.
“Why couldn’t they wait a week and inform the board what they’d like to do – attempt to get permission or some rationale?” said board Chairman Barry Bolen.
The board voted in 2012 to become a governing state in Smarter Balanced based on the administration’s recommendation. On Wednesday, the agency recommended pulling out – citing uncertainty caused by legislation – so it can immediately begin seeking a contract for a different test. Officials say the agency needs to move fast for a test to be in place next spring.
Bolen said that doesn’t make sense.
“If we’d voted to pull out with no replacement, in essence we wouldn’t have an assessment,” he said. “If there’s something better out there, why didn’t they bring it to us? We’re in the middle of a pilot test. Why can’t you wait? Why pull out now? Why not get the data and analyze that?”
If the legislation passes, Bolen said, the agency and the board can deal with it then. He said he’s not defending Smarter Balanced but thinks the poor handling of the issue, driven by election-year politics over Common Core opposition, is confusing educators across the state.
The Education Department has not yet decided how it will proceed, in light of the board vote. That could be decided in the coming week, Teppara said Friday. The agency did not yet know how many districts are choosing to implement the field test.
Common Core is already a big issue in the race to succeed Zais, who is not seeking re-election.
Opponents call it a nationalization of public education. But Common Core, adopted in 45 states and the District of Columbia, is not federal. The initiative was led by governors and superintendents, through the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. The Obama administration encouraged states to sign on through incentives.
Common Core outlines what skills students in kindergarten through 12th grade should learn to be ready for college and careers, replacing standards that varied state-to-state. It does not dictate how students are taught in the classroom. Opponents often confuse standards with curriculum. Local educators decide how the standards are taught.