Education Oversight Committee Passes the Buck on Common Core



In February of 2012 the State Board of Education approved the use of SMARTER Balanced assessments – the tests made by a “consortium” of states used to assess Common Core standards. Nearly two years later, the Education Oversight Committee (EOC) has yet to approve the use of these assessments. South Carolina law mandates that assessments must be approved by both bodies. And after a meeting of the EOC Standards and Assessments Subcommittee on Monday January 27th, the committee doesn’t seem anywhere closer to making a decision.

The meeting’s agenda was supposed to be focused primarily on taking up the new science standards recently given second reading by the State Board, as well as the Cyclical Review of the Accountability System. However, as often happens in meetings of the EOC, the subject of Common Core arose quickly.

Among the first points of concern had to do with when the science standards, if approved soon, would be in full effect. Chemeka Childs with the State Department of Education stated that if the standards were approved this March, they wouldn’t be fully implemented until the 2016-17 school year since the assessments wouldn’t be ready until then. When Rep. Andy Patrick, who was vocal in the meeting but not actually a member of the subcommittee, suggested that the time table seems to be inconsistent with what the state has done with English and Math standards and assessments (Common Core and SMARTER Balanced), Childs replied, “There’s an important difference. These Science standards are state developed, so we fully control the development of those assessments. The standards you’re referring to, the assessments piece, the state is working with other governing states to develop an assessment.”

What she said was exactly right. The assessments she is referring to, SMARTER Balanced, are created through a consortium of over twenty states, meaning the assessments will look like whatever this group decides. If finally approved, South Carolina would no longer have control over both its standards and assessments for English and math. However, Sen. Mike Fair stated that the SMARTER Balanced assessments would end up being in place if the EOC doesn’t take any action on it and that the General Assembly should take action to stop the state from using the assessments.

In discussion of alternatives to both SMARTER Balanced for Math and English and the use of state-developed assessments for science, Rep. Patrick stated that he would probably want to use “off the shelf” assessments like those being developed by ACT. Using ACT-created assessments for science standards is problematic, however, because (as Childs pointed out) the ACT science assessments seems to be aligning with Next Generation Science standards — Common Core-esque standards that were explicitly prohibited in a proviso in South Carolina’s current budget.

From the back and forth conversation between EOC members and Childs, the current state of affairs is as follows: The Department of Education is moving forward with Common Core standards and SMARTER Balanced assessments as if they will be implemented, while many members of the EOC and lawmakers in the General Assembly are moving to get the state out of Common Core and its aligned assessments.

In short, confusion.

One teacher sitting in at the meeting raised an obviously relevant point:  “I’m from Rock Hill School District 3,” she said, “and this spring we are field testing all the high schools for SMARTER Balanced English and Mathematics. If we’re having this conversation right now, why are we doing this for our kids and for our teachers?” She went on to say that teachers have already been engaging in professional development preparing to use SMARTER Balanced and have been using modules around that test type.

The subcommittee finally just sent the science standards to the full EOC body without recommendation (a neutral stance) to be taken up next month.

The confusion illustrates, among other things, that simply passing a bill getting rid of Common Core won’t solve then problem. The power lies with two boards, not with the legislature, and one of those two boards cannot or will not take a position. And even if the legislature were to pass a law outlawing Common Core, one or both of the boards could simply decree adherence to some other federal or trans-state set of assessments and standards – one not called Common Core – and confusion would ensue again.

We’ve argued that the current structure of power over standards and assessments is unaccountable to teachers, parents, students, and citizens since the State Board and the EOC consist of members of two branches of government, as well as people who aren’t elected at all. The current situation with the EOC could fairly be described as unaccountability in action. It has had nearly two years to make a decision to move forward with SMARTER Balanced, approve a different assessment, or vote on a completely different set of standards. The Committee has done none of these, but managed to put the blame on the legislature, as if this were the legislature’s decision to make. Worse: teachers and administrators are putting long hours into preparing for standards and assessments that may be altered scrapped at any time.

The solution is simple. Put these decisions in the hands of one branch of government –  the legislature or, preferably, the executive – so that the decision and consequent accountability will actually rest with an identifiable body or official. If the power structure doesn’t change, even if Common Core is eventually prohibited, the state will find itself in the same position every time controversy arises over standards and assessments.

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