The Utah State Board of Education voted last week to end its relationship with the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), one of two companies that provide testing services based upon the U.S. Department of Education's "Common Core State Standards Initiative" (CCSSI). The action was the result of grassroots activism in the state to bring attention to federal government efforts to enforce national standards for K-12 education. There are currently grassroots activists in at least eight other states raising similar concerns.
Board members who voted in favor of withdrawing from the SBAC said the relationship created a conflict of interest as they consider all the assessment options for their state. Utah will soon request proposals from other companies wishing to work with Utah to provide testing services.
The final vote was 12-3 in favor of withdrawing from SBAC. A similar vote in February failed on a 4-10 vote. Eight of the 12 board members had switched their vote to pass the measure.
"I just don't know that we need to be in Smarter Balanced at this time," said board member Dave Thomas, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. "... Given all the controversy surrounding it and the fact that I don't know that it benefits us right now, that's the reason I vote to withdraw."
Board member Kim Burningham, who voted against withdrawing, complained the move was "just for political reasons."
Grassroots activists in Utah raised concerns last month in a panel discussion at Salt Lake Community College attended by over 300 people.
According to a Deseret News reporter, about one-third to one-fourth of those in attendance identified themselves as homeschoolers. In a recent interview with The Christian Post, William Estrada, director of federal relations for the Home School Legal Defense Association, said that homeschoolers are concerned about the CCSSI because it could lead to a national curriculum that homeschoolers would also be expected to follow.
The CCSSI was adopted by most states as part of the Education Department's "Race to the Top" initiative, which was included in legislation passed by Congress in 2009 designed to stimulate the economy.
"Race to the Top" was set up as a competition among the states to receive grant money for K-12 public education. To participate, states were required to agree to adopt the CCSSI education standards, which were developed by the National Governor's Association, a nongovernmental organization, even before the final draft of the standards were published.
SBAC is one of two consortia that received "Race to the Top" grant money to develop assessments to determine if students are being taught according to the CCSSI standards. It is governed by representatives from the states that participate in the consortium.
While the vote does not mean that Utah has withdrawn from the CCSSI, it is viewed by those opposed to the CCSSI as a significant step in the right direction.
In an interview with The Christian Post, Emmett McGroarty, executive director of the Preserve Innocence Initiative at the American Principles Project, said that the tests and the standards are like bookends to a national curriculum.
"The tests are important because they ensure that particular standards are being taught. ... It's the real enforcement mechanism," McGroarty said.
McGroarty has been a critic of the CCSSI and was one of the speakers at the panel discussion in Utah.
"It's a real assertion that Utah is going to make its own decisions," McGroarty said of the board's vote.
Four states have not adopted the CCSSI: Alaska, Nebraska, Texas and Virginia. Minnesota has adopted the language standards but not the math standards. McGroarty is aware of some level of grassroots activism opposing the CCSSI in at least eight other states besides Utah: Alabama, Colorado, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, and Oklahoma.
Another CCSSI critic, Neal McCluskey, associate director for the Center for Educational Freedom at CATO Institute, a libertarian think tank, wrote in a blog post that the impact of Utah's decision is not "huge" but could be symbolically important, because it shows that "states can undo decisions they have made in haste, or in pursuit of federal money or favors."
While some opponents to the CCSSI are concerned about a more centralized federal involvement in education, there are other critics who are generally supportive of national standards but argue that CCSSI is not rigorous enough. Indeed, these critics argue, some states have ditched their own more rigorous standards in pursuit of federal education dollars tied to the CCSSI standards.
Dr. Sandra McClosky is one of these critics. She helped develop educational standards for Massachusetts from 1999 to 2003 and served on the Common Core's Validation Committee from 2009 to 2010.
Her many criticisms of the CCSSI include the following: it redefines "college-readiness" as ready to enter a two-year community college rather than a four-year college; it expects English teachers to spend over half of their time teaching nonfiction and informational texts, such as technical manuals and political documents; in writing, it fails to distinguish argument from expression of opinion; and, the reading standards are confusing and difficult to discern.
The math standards have also been criticized for, among other things, abandoning a move toward having more students take Algebra I in eighth grade so that more students would be able to take calculus in their senior year, replacing Euclidian geometry with an untested experimental approach, and failing to require that students know how to make conversions among fractions, decimals and percents.
These criticisms, and others, are described in a white paper by McGroarty and Jane Robbins for the Pioneer Institute and American Principles Project.