Common Core Tests to Cost S.C. Taxpayers Millions

February 10, 2014

Investigative Reports

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School TestBelonging to the 22-state consortium that is developing the Common Core math and English language arts assessment tests for K-12 students will soon no longer be a cheap date for S.C. taxpayers.

Contacted last week by The Nerve, Jacqueline King, director of “higher education collaboration” for the “Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium,” based in Washington state, said after a four-year $175 million federal grant that supports the consortium ends in September, member states, including South Carolina, will have to pay membership fees to continue in the group.

The initial estimated cost to stay in the Smarter Balanced group would be $6.20 or $9.55 per tested S.C. student, depending on the level of services provided, King said. Based on a projected 52,000 to 55,000 students at each tested grade level in South Carolina, the membership fee in the first year would run $1.93 million or $2 million for grades 3 through 8 at the $6.20-per-student level, and $2.97 million or $3.15 million at the $9.55 level.

If grade 11 is added, as the S.C. Department of Education (DOE) has proposed, the projected maximum membership cost jumps to $2.38 million at the $6.20-per-student level and $3.67 million at the $9.55 level.

Besides membership fees, states also would be responsible for the costs of administering and scoring the assessment tests, King said.

“We think over time with having common assessments, it will help drive down costs,” she said.

In a written response Friday afternoon to The Nerve, DOE spokesman Dino Teppara said the cost of administering Common Core tests to approximately 380,000 students in grades 3 through 8 and 11 for the 2014-15 school year, which starts July 1, is estimated at $14.1 million, though it was not immediately known if that included membership fees. The tests are scheduled to be given over a five-week period during the last 12 weeks of the school year.

The projected $14.1 million tab is at least $2 million more than what it cost last year to administer the Palmetto Assessment of State Standards (PASS) math and English language arts tests, which would be replaced with the Common Core exams, in grades 3 through 8, and the High School Assessment Program (HSAP) exam in grade 10, according to information provided by Teppara. Test costs for this school year are not yet available, he said.

“Smarter (Balanced) will be funded with both state and federal funds,” Teppara said, though according to the consortium’s website, “At the conclusion of the federal grant in September 2014, Smarter Balanced will become an operational assessment system supported by its member states.”

S.C. ‘Very Active’

South Carolina joined the consortium in June 2010 as an “advisory” state, according to a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed by then-Gov. Mark Sanford, a Republican; former Democratic state Superintendent of Education Jim Rex; and then-State Board of Education President Tim Moore.

An “advisory” state, according to the MOU, has “not fully committed to any Consortium but supports the work of this Consortium.”

In contrast, a “governing” state has “fully committed to this Consortium only and met the qualifications specified in this document,” the MOU states.

Gov. Nikki Haley and Superintendent of Education Mick Zais, both Republicans, along with Gerrita Postlewait, then-state Board of Education president, reauthorized South Carolina’s “advisory” status in June 2011, according to the MOU, as reported by The Nerve last month.  In June 2012, the Palmetto State changed its membership status to “governing,” according to a Smarter Balanced press release at the time.

Haley recently on her Facebook page, however, gave a conflicting message:  “We have been trying to repeal Common Core since 2011 when we came into office. Whether its (sic) education, healthcare, or any aspect of government, we will fight to keep all standards state based, not federal.”

But King said neither Haley’s office nor the S.C. Department of Education has expressed any opposition directly to the Smarter Balanced consortium, adding, “They (South Carolina) have been very active in the consortium.”

The June 2012 press release announcing South Carolina’s membership change to “governing” noted, for example, that Palmetto State representatives were serving on “three of the 10 state-led Smarter Balanced work groups.”

The Nerve on Friday sent written questions to Haley spokesman Doug Mayer about the discrepancies between Haley’s public statements opposing Common Core and her reauthorizing the state’s participation in the consortium. No response was provided by publication of this story.

King said states can leave the consortium at any time, noting that two governing states – Kansas and Utah –  and two advisory states – Alabama and Alaska – withdrew from the group.

Besides South Carolina, the consortium’s 22 governing states include California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming, according to Smarter Balanced’s website. In addition, Pennsylvania is listed as an advisory state.

According to the Smarter Balanced website, King is one of 11 staff members working for the consortium. King said the consortium is “housed fiscally” in Washington state, though she added the group plans to establish its headquarters at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), School of Education.

‘Stop the Bleeding’

Common Core supporters say the program standards, which were developed by leaders from the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, will help make students better prepared for college and careers.

“The Consortium involves educators, researchers, policymakers, and community groups in a transparent and consensus-driven process to help all students thrive in a knowledge-driven global economy,” according to the Smarter Balanced website.

But opponents contend the Common Core standards are flawed, and that the consortium strips control from parents and teachers in the Palmetto State.

“This is all about not ceding authority to unknown persons in other states who have a different value system, different priorities, different philosophies – not ceding authority over the most precious thing we have, and that is the minds of our children,” said state Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston and the sponsor of a bill (S. 888) that would slow the implementation of Common Core in South Carolina.

The bill, which was prefiled in December, would require approval by the General Assembly of any new “state content standard” used as “an accountability measure,” or revisions to existing standards if the changes are developed by any entity other than the state Department of Education. The Legislature and governor would have to be notified in advance of any planned changes to existing standards.

“It would stop the bleeding,” Campsen said when contacted by The Nerve last week.

Another bill (S. 300) proposed by state Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, which was the subject of a Senate Education subcommittee hearing last week, would ban the state education board from implementing any Common Core standards.

Although a co-sponsor of that bill, Campsen said it faces an uphill battle this year in the Legislature, noting, “It’s clearly going to be difficult to undo the standards that have been adopted.”

A state law (Section 59-18-320 (D) of the S.C. Code of Laws) mandates that any “new standards and assessments required to be developed and adopted by the State Board of Education, through the Department of Education for use as an accountability measure, must be developed and adopted upon the advice and consent of the Education Oversight Committee.”

The EOC, an 18-member group that includes Haley, has not yet voted whether to adopt the Common Core assessments. Contacted last week by The Nerve, Melanie Barton, the EOC’s executive director, said the law doesn’t require EOC approval until after the Common Core exams are “field tested’ this spring in S.C. schools.

“We have no test items to look at or results,” she said.

The EOC is scheduled to meet this afternoon on proposed science standards, which are not part of the Common Core program.

Asked if the state education board has seen any of the Common Core tests, Teppara, of the state Department of Education, said in his written response to The Nerve: “The State Board of Education followed the typical approval process by approving the test design. The members never review actual test items because the items are secure.”

“As with all our high stakes assessments,” Teppara continued, “the test items that will be field tested are secured and cannot be shared. They are secure because these items are being tested for possible inclusion on the operational assessments in 2014-15 and beyond.”

“It will be interesting to see how kids will do on it,” said Barton.

South Carolina Policy Council analyst Dillon Jones contributed to this story. Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.