Education

State Board of Education’s authority weakened with legislation that replaces Common Core

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Lawmakers who sit on the House Education Committee approved legislation yesterday that would endeavor to replace the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) with another set of standards developed here in North Carolina.

The proposed legislation, which hits the House floor this afternoon, would have two key effects: prohibit the possibility of engaging in a new, substantial mechanism to compare NC students’ academic performance with that of students in other states; and authorize the creation of a review commission composed of parents, educators, and other stakeholders to review alternative standards and recommend them for adoption.

Reviewing academic standards is an arduous task that is typically handled by the State Board of Education and the Department of Public Instruction, which reviews standards on a five-year cycle and involves hundreds of stakeholders in the process.

The proposed commission would somehow work alongside the State Board’s process, although it’s not clear how – and it has Dr. June Atkinson, State Superintendent of Public Instruction, particularly worried.

“I think its really critical that we value and honor the constitutional authority of the State Board of Education to set standards for public education,” said Atkinson.

“And when you look at the legislation…it has the potential to undermine the authority of the State Board of Education.”

Creating a review commission

The development of Common Core State Standards (CCSS), a set of guidelines detailing what students should know and can do in English Language Arts and mathematics, has incited controversy around the nation.

Parents, teachers, and other stakeholders have called into question whether or not the standards demand excessive testing, if they are grade-level appropriate, and if they serve as a vehicle for corporate profit. Some states have either opted out or plan to opt out of the adoption of the standards.

North Carolina’s proposed legislation, “Replace Common Core State Standards with NC’s Higher Academic Standards,” (which the Senate Education Committee will also take up for debate this afternoon), would halt the implementation process of the Common Core and authorize an Academic Standards Review Commission, housed under the Department of Administration, that would cost taxpayers $75,000 per year to engage in a comprehensive review of the Common Core English and math standards and propose necessary changes.

The review commission could exist indefinitely, per the legislation. Its 17 members would be a mix of Senate, House and gubernatorial appointees who hail from either business or education communities; teachers, parents, or curriculum experts; and two members of the State Board of Education. The appointees would not be limited to those designations, however.

Drawing on recommendations of content experts in its review and proposal of new standards, the review commission would make its final recommendations to the State Board of Education. If the State Board makes changes to English and math standards that lawmakers find inadequate, the General Assembly would have the authority to overturn the State Board’s decision making process and authorize their own standards.

Atkinson worries that the end result of the set up of a commission that lacks breadth and direction for how it conducts a review of standards could result in lower standards for the state’s students, even though the legislation aims to avoid that.

“Having worked before with the development of standards, one of my biggest fears and I’ve seen it happen is that I see the standards become political, and instead of doing what is best for students, I’ve seen the bowing down to lesser standards,” said Atkinson.

The system that the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) uses to review academic standards on a five-year cycle is a complex one.

Once standards are implemented and in place for three years, DPI begins meeting with teachers by grade and subject area to ask them for feedback. They then assemble a large committee of interested stakeholders that includes members of the business community, various industries, higher education professionals, teachers, administrators and content area experts to review school-level feedback and propose their own recommendations.

During the fifth year of the cycle, district level feedback is gathered and at that point in time, recommendations are made to the State Board of Education to adjust, delete or add to academic standards.

“We have this policy in place because we want breadth and depth in the standards review process,” said Atkinson, who explained that they also take into consideration what each discipline association has to say about North Carolina’s standards and consider successful content area standards that exist in other states and countries.

“We’ve had national math standards in place for decades,” added Atkinson.

Rep. Bryan Holloway (R-Rockingham, Stokes) said yesterday he doesn’t want to see standards become weakened.

“We’re not trying to weaken standards. We actually would prefer to have even stronger standards,” said Holloway.

Gov. Pat McCrory says he supports higher standards too, and hopes that the focus of lawmakers’ efforts rests on the testing issue the state grapples with.

“I think the issue is not the high standards, which we have to have. I think the issue is the implementation and execution, especially with regard to testing,” McCrory said. “I hope they focus more on the testing rather than the concept of requiring high standards.”

But the high number of tests that students in North Carolina take, says Atkinson, doesn’t have anything to do with Common Core.

“The tests we see today are a result of the General Assembly’s requirements that were passed into law over the past several years, and the result of the federal No Child Left Behind law. And those testing requirements were in existence before the Common Core standards were developed,” said Atkinson.

“There are people who are willing to perpetuate myths, intentionally or unintentionally,” said Atkinson, “about Common Core requirements in terms of testing – and they are simply not true.”

Prohibiting national comparisons

The proposed law would allow the currently adopted Common Core State Standards in English and math to remain in place for at least the next year – but it would prohibit the State Board of Education from adopting any national assessments that are created specifically for the Common Core.

The state has already developed its own assessments around the new Common Core State Standards in English and math, which it adopted in 2010. However, North Carolina is also a governing member of the Smarter Balanced consortium, which works to review Common Core standards and develop nationally normed assessments around them.

While the state could continue its participation in the Smarter Balanced consortium, it wouldn’t be able to adopt any testing products that result from that work. The proposed law in its current form has strong language that prevents the state from even considering the adoption of Smarter Balanced tests or PARCC tests, which is the other large entity that is working on developing national assessments around the Common Core standards.

If the bill becomes law, it begs the question – is the state’s participation in Smarter Balanced a good use of time if it cannot take advantage of the work that is done with that consortium?

Atkinson explained to N.C. Policy Watch that this isn’t really a change from last year.

“The General Assembly passed a law last year preventing us from using Smarter Balanced or PARCC assessments,” Atkinson said. “The State Board of Education also passed a policy last fall that would create a task force to determine whether or not we should use NC assessments or use a national test like Smarter Balanced, PARCC, or another.”

That task force hasn’t been formed yet.

Why are members of the General Assembly opposed to nationally normed tests that would measure student performance on Common Core State Standards?

Senator Jerry Tillman (R-Randolph), chair of the Senate Education Committee, has expressed his frustration with the notion of national standards, indicating his belief that they limit room for local adjustments.

“If you adopt national standards, that triggers everything else,” said Tillman in April. “It triggers your test, it triggers your textbook, and it triggers your teaching methods. If you believe in Common Core, they own it all and North Carolina owns nothing.”

Joanna Schmizzi, a high school teacher in Mecklenberg County, says she has a theory about why lawmakers want to repeal the Common Core and avoid national tests.

“To me it says they are afraid,” said Schmizzi. “To pull out of the Common Core says we’re afraid of measuring our students against students across the country. The state legislature is afraid, and they should be – they haven’t supported education in a long time.”

The House legislation to repeal the Common Core standards will be on the floor for a final vote on Wednesday. The Senate Education Committee takes up similar legislation that would repeal Common Core standards Wednesday afternoon at 1 p.m. Look for updates from N.C. Policy Watch on the blog at http://pulse.ncpolicywatch.org.