Withdrawing from Smarter Balanced: Q&A


With the recent move by the South Carolina Department of Education to remove South Carolina from the Smarter Balanced consortium, there’s a lot of understandable confusion about standards and assessments in state schools. What follows is a brief, clear explanation of what happened, what the options are, and how it relates to the future of Common Core in South Carolina.

What is Smarter Balanced anyway?

The Smarter Balanced Consortium is one of the two consortia – the other PARCC – that was awarded a federal grant ($362 million split between the two consortia) to develop standardized tests aligned to Common Core. As we reported in September of last year, Governor Mark Sanford and State Superintendent Jim Rex signed a Memorandum of Agreement in June 2010 to bring South Carolina into the consortium. In signing the memorandum, the state also had to agree to remain signed on to Common Core standards. Soon after, the State Board voted to approve Smarter Balanced as the Common Core-aligned test for South Carolina– but the EOC has not yet approved these tests. The memorandum was later re-signed by Governor Nikki Haley and State Superintendent Mick Zais; South Carolina became a governing member of the consortium in 2012.

South Carolina schools were scheduled to start field testing these Smarter Balanced tests this spring.

Does the state Department of Education have the authority to drop out of Smarter Balanced?

That’s unclear. Superintendent Zais seems to think it does, and he’s exercising it. On April 3, the Department of Education notified school districts that it planned on withdrawing from Smarter Balanced and that they could end field testing. And on April 14, less than a week after the State Board voted not to withdraw from Smarter Balanced, Zais issued a letter stating that the authority to exit the consortium lies solely with him. The letter sums up his reasoning: “Since the State Board approved the assessment program in regulation, the State Board cannot mandate a change in the assessment program by a one-vote process alone.  Until a regulation is promulgated, the decision of the State Board with regard to the assessment program is not final.”

The South Carolina Education Accountability Act gives authority to approve academic standards and assessments to two bodies: the State Board of Education (a 17-member board – 16 of its members are appointed by legislative delegations, and one by the governor) and the Education Oversight Committee (a committee of lawmakers and members from the education and business community appointed by lawmakers and the governor). Neither of these bodies have voted to withdraw from Smarter Balanced.

On the legislative level, there is one bill that passed in the House, and one on special order in the Senate (meaning it was set as a priority bill in the chamber), that would, among other things, mandate that South Carolina withdraw from Smarter Balanced.

If all of this sounds confusing, that’s because it is. We essentially have three different governmental bodies claiming the authority to change our state’s standardized tests. The mess we’re in is created by a bizarre power structure.

Would withdrawing from Smarter Balanced also withdraw South Carolina from Common Core?

No. Although withdrawing from Smarter Balanced would give our state more power to create tests aligned with our academic standards in English and Math, withdrawing from the consortium is not the same as withdrawing from Common Core. Any test the state uses must be aligned with the state’s standards, and since South Carolina has thus far decided to keep going with Common Core standards, any new test will still be a Common Core-aligned test.

What’s the best way to get our state out of Common Core and keep state-created standards in the future?

There are short term and long term solutions to achieving these goals.

Short term. Since current state law gives authority to the State Board and EOC to change and adopt standards, they should be the bodies to vote to end use of Common Core standards and adopt state-developed standards.

Why not just pass a bill outlawing Common Core? For these two reasons. First, even if the legislature directs the Board, EOC, and the state Department of Education to end use of Common Core standards, there’s nothing stopping them from creating “state developed” standards that are de facto identical to Common Core and would keep South Carolina’s status as a “college and career ready” state – a benchmark concocted by the federal government to determine if states should get certain amounts of federal money or not.

Second, bills that originally start out as one thing often end up as something else – and sometimes as the opposite of what they started out as – by the end of the legislative process. Case in point: S.300. Opponents of Common Core supported this bill because, as originally written, it have directed the state to withdraw from Common Core standards. By the time that bill got out of the Senate Education Committee, it no longer stipulated that the state drop out of Common Core; instead it would drop us out of Smarter Balanced, require legislative approval of any new standards not developed by the Department of Education, and require a review of the English and Math standards by no later than 2018. After a review of the standards, the EOC and State Board could certainly vote to stay on with Common Core they wanted to. Hence what started out as an anti-Common Core bill ended up as a Common Core continuation bill.

Long term. By current law, the process of adoption of standards and assessments is highly unaccountable to citizens. As mentioned earlier, the EOC and State Board are hybrid bodies of legislative and executive appointees, most of whom aren’t elected by the public. This leaves citizens completely out of the decision-making process – so much so, in fact, that these bodies ignored a state law requiring parental involvement when considering new standards (they simply “modified” the process to accommodate the Common Core adoption timeline).

The power to make these decisions should be put in one branch of government, the executive branch or legislative – but preferably the former, and more specifically the Department of Education. The Department is headed by the State Superintendent who is elected state-wide and can be held accountable by voters. Moreover, giving a more definitive decision-making authority would alleviate confusion among teachers, parents, and students when changing standards and assessments.

What’s the lesson in all this?

South Carolina adopted Common Core for one reason: federal money. Race to the Top grant funds (which we never received), No Child Left Behind waivers (tied to federal education money), and Smarter Balanced (funded by the federal government) were all applied for by our state in connection with adopting Common Core. So long as South Carolina relies on funding from the federal government, it will have to abide by the dictates of the federal government. Whether it’s standards, assessments, data collection, or curriculum, if the federal government wants our state to have a specific education policy, it will tie our funds to it. The only way to prevent any of this from happening is to turn the money down. Only then will South Carolina regain its sovereignty and the power to dictate its own education policies.

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