SC scrambles to determine next year's state assessment

Beaufort County field testing sites stop testing in confusion

sbowman@beaufortgazette.comApril 13, 2014 

Hilton Head Island Middle School student Emma Patrick works during a practice PASS test in the class of English teacher Kathleen Clark.

THEOPHIL SYSLO — Theophil Syslo Buy Photo

The S.C. Board of Education and the S.C. Department of Education issued conflicting orders this month about which will pick the standardized test that will be used next year for statewide assessments.

Until the conflict is settled, the Beaufort County School District is in a holding pattern, halting evaluations of a test designed to measure performance against Common Core standards.

"We have a letter from the state Department of Education saying to cease and desist a week ago, but then we had the recent vote from the state board," Beaufort County school director of accountability Daniel Fallon said. "So we're all just kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place right now and don't know what to do."

Eight Beaufort County public schools -- Mossy Oaks Elementary, Hilton Head Island Elementary, Okatie Elementary, Whale Branch Elementary, Lady's Island Middle School, Whale Branch Middle, Whale Branch Early College High School and Battery Creek High -- began administering the Smarter Balanced test in March. Other districts around the state also were being used as field test sites.

The examination was developed by one of the two groups funded by the U.S. Department of Education to come up with a Common Core test. It was being given this spring in the eight Beaufort County Schools in addition to the Palmetto Assessment of State Standards -- the test being replaced -- so that its effectiveness could be measured before it is rolled out statewide next year.

However, that testing stopped abruptly two weeks ago after the state Department of Education told districts it was withdrawing from the 22-state Smarter Balanced Consortium, which it joined in 2012.

Then on Tuesday, the state Board of Education voted 9-4 to remain with Smarter Balanced, saying the Department of Education lacked authority to leave the consortium.

The state board is the body responsible for public elementary and secondary education in South Carolina. It consists of 17 members, one appointed from each of the state's 16 judicial circuits by their legislative delegations and one member appointed by the governor.

Now, schools across the state do not know whether to resume the field testing, Fallon said.

There are proposals in the General Assembly that would prevent South Carolina from administering the Smarter Balanced assessment, according to education department spokesman Dino Teppara. He said many states are buying or developing their own assessments to better meet their needs, and his department intends to pursue a similar path.

"Withdrawing from the consortium now, rather than awaiting probable legislative action, would allow the (state) to begin the process to secure assessments for the 2014-15 school year," Teppara said.

Many educators, including some in Beaufort County, say the ACT Aspire test, developed by the company that produces the ACT college board examination, would better suit the state.

ACT Aspire evaluates students in more subjects and is aligned with its namesake college-entrance exam. Alabama and Minnesota currently use it.

"I think the decision to withdraw frees up the legislature to start looking for an alternative assessment and do their due diligence to find an assessment across all subjects and that is really aligned with college readiness measures," Fallon said.

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