Education officials and advocates are frustrated and confused following a decision by South Carolina's top education administrator to withdraw from the consortium that would test Common Core standards next school year.
"There is a lot of uncertainty," said Melanie Barton, executive director of the state's Education Oversight Committee.
On Monday, S.C. Superintendent of Education Mick Zais released a letter to the chairman of the State Board of Education to say that he was withdrawing the state from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. Zais' said he wanted to "get ahead" of pending legislation that would require the state to exit Smarter Balanced, though it's unclear if that bill will pass.
The State Board of Education adopted the Smarter Balanced test assessment in 2012 with a plan to implement the new test in the 2014-2015 school year.
Many public schools, including those in Berkeley and Charleston counties, had begun field testing the new test in the last month. The South Carolina Department of Education is letting individual school districts decide whether to continue with such testing or not.
Jackie B. Hicks, president of the South Carolina Education Association, said the educators she's heard from have expressed bewilderment over Zais' decision because "it invalidates a significant amount of time and money the state already has invested in preparing for the Common Core State Standards."
Under state law, the Education Oversight Committee cannot adopt the Smarter Balanced test, or any test, until the field testing is completed, Barton said. It's unclear what standardized test the state might use in the fall.
The uncertainty over the use of Smarter Balanced testing raises questions about whether the state could be in violation of a waiver from No Child Left Behind, which requires a "college and career ready assessment." Because what students are learning in math and reading will change as a result of implementing Common Core, the state needs new standardized exams.
Dino Teppara, spokesman for the South Carolina Department of Education, said the state is not in violation of the waiver because it still has a college and career ready assessment, referring to the High School Assessment Program exams.
But Barton noted that the waiver for No Child Left Behind specifically identifies Smarter Balanced as the test the state will use.
If the state were to violate the waiver, that could jeopardize $212 million of Title I money allocated to the state for schools with a high percentage of low-income children, Barton said.
Barry Bolen, the chairman of the State Board of Education, said in his mind, Smarter Balanced remains the state's test assessment for the next school year unless the board or the legislature adopts a different test.
Zais, in the letter to Bolen, said he believes the state should consider "an open procurement" to explore other tests.
The state doesn't need to be a member of the consortium to use the Smarter Balanced test. So far no decision has been made on whether to issue a request for proposal for other test assessments.
"We are reviewing all options right now, focusing on securing the best assessment at the lowest cost to taxpayers," Teppara said.