Zais pulls SC out of Smarter Balanced testing group

Unclear what students will take next spring to replace PASS

sbowman@beaufortgazette.comApril 14, 2014 

Hilton Head Island middle School sixth-grader Jack McGoldrick holds his hand to his forehead while taking a practice PASS writing test during class at Hilton Head Island Middle School with English teacher Kathleen Clark.

THEOPHIL SYSLO — Staff photo Buy Photo

Educators in South Carolina have no clue what standardized test students will take next year to assess new state Common Core standards. However, one test is out of the running: the Smarter Balanced test the state had planned to use.

In a letter Monday, education Superintendent Mick Zais said he had put an end to conflicting orders issued recently by the S.C. Board of Education and S.C. Department of Education, pulling the state from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium it joined in February 2012.

However, his letter did not say what test students would take to replace the current Palmetto Assessment of State Standards, or PASS.

"I am not wed to any particular test," Zais wrote. "I want to make sure that the state considers all options available and does not exclude ... (an assessment) simply because those assessments were not in existence two years ago."

Several bills in the General Assembly -- one that passed in the House on Thursday and another that has advanced to the Senate floor -- would require the state to exit the consortium and ban the use of the Smarter Balanced test.

The bills are considered a compromise to efforts to throw out the Common Core standards altogether, four years after their adoption by two state boards. Common Core attempts to set nationwide math and reading standards for students in all grade levels. It has been introduced statewide, and full implementation -- to include testing aligned to the standards -- is slated for next school year.

The legislation would keep Common Core in place at least for a few years, but requires leaving Smarter Balanced.

Zais he chose to take South Carolina out of the Smarter Balanced consortium ahead of the legislation's likely approval so the state has time to explore testing alternatives.

The head of instruction for the Beaufort County School District agreed with Zais that better tests are available, but said the decision leaves lingering questions.

"Does this mean we are going to have to keep doing PASS?" Dereck Rhoads asked. "Is someone going to rework PASS to align it with the standards? Are we going to adopt the ACT Aspire test?"

Rhoads said he thinks ACT Aspire would be good for the district because it evaluates students in more subjects and is aligned with its namesake college-entrance exam.

Based on the Department of Education's recommendation, the state Board of Education voted in 2012 to become a governing member of the 22-state consortium that was awarded federal funding to develop a Common Core-aligned test.

But on April 3, the agency sent a letter to districts notifying them of its plan to withdraw and said the districts could stop field-testing Smarter Balanced. More than 350 schools -- eight of which are in Beaufort County -- across 67 districts began those trials in March.

However, the state board voted Wednesday for South Carolina to stay in the consortium, asserting that the department lacked authority to make a decision about the test on its own.

Zais, disappointed by the board's vote, said he does have that authority and is exercising it.

Associated Press reporter Seanna Adcox contributed to this report. Follow reporter Sarah Bowman at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah.

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