COLUMBIA - South Carolina's top education administrator has decided to withdraw the state from the consortium that would test Common Core standards in the coming school year.
In a letter sent to the chairman of the State Board of Education on Monday, Superintendent of Education Mick Zais said he learned he has the authority to withdraw the state from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and was exercising his power to do so.
"I am not wed to any particular test," wrote Zais in the letter. "I want to have a high quality assessment that meets the specific needs of South Carolina, at a competitive price. If we continue to focus only on Smarter Balanced, we lose any opportunity to consider alternatives." Jackie Hicks, president of The South Carolina Education Association said Zais "has proclaimed himself State School Czar," adding Zais has placed his "extreme political agenda ahead of what's best for our students."
The Common Core standards and the tests to measure their effectiveness have come under fire in a number of states, including South Carolina, as a way to nationalize eduction, and standardize curriculum at the state level. Legislators, educators and political candidates are coming down on both sides of the issue.
"We are in the middle of a political battle here," said Hicks through a written statement. "It's extremely counter-productive now to abandon a vetted strategy mid-course."
South Carolina's students were scheduled to be tested by Smarter Balanced during the 2014-15 school year. Trial testing started last month. The Common Core standards are currently being taught and are due to be fully enacted next year.
Common Core standards define what students in all grades must learn in reading and math. Because what students are learning will be changing, the state needs new standardized exams to evaluate them. The state Board of Education had agreed to Smarter Balanced's test, which was made up of educators, researchers, policymakers and community groups from states nationwide.
Last week, the State Board of Education voted against Zais' proposal to allow South Carolina to withdraw from the Smarter Balanced Consortium.
State Board of Education member Larry Kobrovsky, who represents Charleston and Berkeley counties, was among four board members who voted in favor of withdrawing from Smarter Balanced.
"I think it's a good thing," said Kobrovsky of Zais' move. "We didn't scrutinize it enough."
In the letter, Zais says he was disappointed with the board's vote. He added that though the state picked in 2012 Smarter Balanced over another consortium, the vote did not prevent the state from changing its decision.
Zais goes on to say conditions have changed and cites "at least two states" that have requested proposals from other vendors for tests that will assess Common Core standards. Utah pulled out of Smarter Balanced last year, while Florida dropped the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, another consortium aiming to test Common Core, last month.
State Board of Education Chairman Barry Bolen - who voted against withdrawing from Smarter Balanced - called last week's proposal to withdraw a "knee jerk reaction" to pending legislation.
"Smarter Balanced is our state assessment," he said. "I'm not going to pull out of one assessment if they don't have another one they're recommending."
A bill by Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Charleston, that calls for the repeal of Common Core standards themselves is in limbo because a senator is blocking it from being debated on the floor. The bill has amendments, referred to as a compromise, which pulls South Carolina out of Smarter Balanced, but keeps Common Core in the state for a few years. The House also approved last week a bill that withdraws the state from Smarter Balanced and bans the use of its tests.
Bolen cited the state's waiver from No Child Left Behind as a concern; not having a test that meets federal requirements would void the waiver, which could jeopardize $214 million in federal Title I money allocated for schools with a high percentage of low-income children. State education officials countered they have enough time to get a different assessment in place.
"My decision to exit Smarter Balanced does not address which assessments will be offered in South Carolina next year," wrote Zais in the letter. "Since there is clearly not one sole supplier for assessments aligned to the Common Core State Standards, we believe in the spirit of competition and compliance with the Procurement Code that the State of South Carolina should consider an open procurement."