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Published in Print: June 3, 2015, as New S.C. Standards Ease Political Pushback

New Standards Ease Political Pushback in South Carolina

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South Carolina was one of three states last year—along with Indiana and Oklahoma—to require a replacement for the Common Core State Standards, amid a volatile political climate and challenges states have faced in implementing the standards.

The transition is about to be complete for South Carolina: Its new math and English/language arts standards, developed by a team of in-state educators and adopted by the state school board in March, go into effect in the 2015-16 school year.

That shift has led to what state officials say is a calmer political climate for South Carolina's public schools, support from a broad spectrum of K-12 and higher education leaders, and new standards that the state itself says are very closely aligned to the common core.

The state did have to craft and approve new standards on a tighter timeline than many would have liked. And implementation challenges remain for the state, which had left the common core in place for the 2014-15 school year. Chief among them: standardized testing.

But crucially, common-core pushback from South Carolina conservatives concerned about the federal government's relationship to the common core has receded, said Melanie Barton, the executive director of the Education Oversight Committee, a quasi-governmental organization that oversaw the new standards: "It was just a constant diversion away from teaching and learning."

And those who created the South Carolina standards say they represent notable improvements over the common core.

"Certainly, it would have been nice to have had more time," said Christie Reid, a math instructional supervisor for the Clover School District 2 and a member of the standards-writing team for mathematics. "But I really am proud of what we produced. I think we took what we had and we made it better."

Inclusive Process

Rollout of homegrown standards has varied considerably in the three states that dropped the common core last year.

Indiana's replacement standards went into effect for the 2014-15 school year, although many observers say the two are in fact very similar. And Oklahoma is still devising new standards that state law requires to be in place for the 2016-17 academic year.

In South Carolina—where standards are reviewed and updated at least once every seven years in each content area—365 teachers applied to write the new math and English/language arts standards. That's about 10 times the usual number, according to the state education department. Nineteen for each content area were eventually picked.

The standards-writing teams, in turn, were overseen by the Education Oversight Committee, an 18-member nonpartisan group that includes educators, members of the business community, and elected officials picked by the state legislature and GOP Gov. Nikki Haley. Review teams were set up to evaluate the writing teams' work on behalf of the committee. The oversight committee was responsible for signing off on the proposed standards before sending them to the state board for a final vote.

The state education department tried to cast a more extensive net than in past years to seek out public opinion on its new standards, and got 18,000 public comments about draft versions of the standards.

"There was a very intense effort to include more people from higher ed., from business, from parents, and input from teachers with multiple surveys," said Sandy Avinger, a math and digital-resource coach in Orangeburg Consolidated School District 5 who helped oversee the math-standards writing team.

The writing and review teams worked on a nine-month timeline to craft the standards, a process in South Carolina that usually takes 18 months to two years. Ms. Reid, the math-team member, said that in addition to having the state's previous math standards in the room with her, as well as the common core, she drew on past math standards adopted by South Carolina, as well as standards from Indiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Texas.

Confusion, Then Clarity

But those involved in the process say in the early going, there was a lack of clarity about what could and couldn't be considered.

Homegrown Approach

A state oversight committee cited some key differences between the South Carolina College- and Career-Ready Standards and the Common Core State Standards:

State Standards in Math:

  • Greater emphasis on number fluency in kindergarten and 1st grade
  • Inclusion of instruction on coins and money in grades 1 and 4
  • Inclusion of fluency in multiplication tables in grade 4
  • Greater emphasis on data and measurement in elementary grades
  • Greater skill progression from middle to high school
  • Greater emphasis on data analysis
  • Inclusion of graduation standards that all students should meet
  • In grades 9-12, standards identified by course and not grade spans as in CCSS
  • Inclusion of precalculus and calculus courses in high school

State Standards in English/Language Arts:

  • Inclusion of cursive writing in grades 2 and 3
  • Principles of reading included as standards within each grade band
  • Inquiry-based literacy standards included within each grade band
  • Appendices of CCSS (which include text exemplars) removed from standards
  • Standards often exceed the demands of CCSS, particularly in the early grades

After first being told that lawmakers wanted a rewrite of the standards that prohibited any reliance on the common core, Ms. Reid said the writers were told last fall that wasn't the case.

"There was confusion. I think that the writers felt like they were restricted on some language that they could use, that there could be absolutely no repetition of any verbiage from the common-core standards," Ms. Spearman said. "Our feeling was, you can use the best verbiage you can find. And if some of that is a duplication [of the common core], that's OK."

According to those involved in the process, a crucial juncture turned out to be at the start of 2015, when then-state-Superintendent Mick Zais declined to seek reelection in 2014, and Molly Spearman, a former state legislator and the head of the state's school administrators' association, took over. (Both were elected as Republicans.) Ms. Spearman decided to convene a monthlong meeting of leaders in both the writing and review teams to hash out their differences and clarify what the writing teams should be doing.

Organizations that often study states' content standards, such as the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Achieve (both backers of the common core), so far haven't released any study of South Carolina's new standards and their similarities to the common core.

However, the state's Education Oversight Committee compared the state's new standards with the common core. The results show some differences and a great deal of overlap.

For the English/language arts standards, there was 89 percent alignment, according to the committee's analysis, while 100 percent of the new South Carolina standards meet or exceed what the common core asks for, and 18 percent of the state's new standards exceed common core's demands. For math, the numbers were very similar—there was 92 percent alignment, 100 percent of the new standards meeting or exceeding the common core, and 15 percent of the new standards exceeding the demands of the common core.

In its analysis, the oversight committee highlighted several specific areas where the new standards represent a departure from the common core, including the writers' inclusion of multiplication tables for younger students and material covering calculus in high school.

The math team also approved placing greater emphasis on mathematical patterns, as well as moving the introduction of money concepts from the 2nd to the 1st grade.

"We just wanted a nice vertical progression," Ms. Reid said, adding that in terms of the writing team's goals, "it wasn't necessarily to include more things earlier. It was more to make sure that the foundational skills had proper development."

But there are key similarities to the common core. For example, one important common-core math standard is in the 3rd grade, in which fractions are meant to be understood and represented on a number line; that's very similar to a new South Carolina standard in 3rd grade math.

In the area of English/language arts, the new standards include cursive writing in grades 2 and 3. For younger students, the standards also include a new emphasis on analyzing texts, in addition to citing textual evidence.

But the English/language arts standards also call on 6th graders to distinguish claims that are "supported by reasons" from those that aren't. That's similar to one of the "anchor" standards for reading in the common core that calls on students to "delineate and evaluate" arguments in a text, and to judge their validity.

The new standards also include what the state deems to be crucial skills for college- and career-ready students in English/language arts, and important "process" standards in math to be used for each grade level and course.

Expected Similarities

Ultimately, the state's new standards turned out very similar to the common core, according to Ellen Forte, the CEO of edCount, a Washington-based consulting firm that helps develop curriculum and implement standards. That's not particularly surprising, in her view.

"Some of the language is going to be very similar because things are being developed around the same time," Ms. Forte said.

But the committee's statistical analysis doesn't necessarily mean the new standards will play out in the classroom like the common core did, said Ms. Avinger of the South Carolina math team: "We've just done a better job of clarifying the standards to ensure that the conceptual understanding is there during classroom instruction."

While schools that made a strong transition to the common core over the past several years will shift relatively easily to the new standards, many districts "thought the common core would just go away" and never did a lot to implement it, said Ms. Barton of the oversight committee.

"Those districts have a lot of work to do," she added.

Avoiding a Political Repeat

Public school officials are adamant that many who were hostile to the common core have been pleased with what the state has produced and how South Carolina produced it.

Ms. Barton said she has "not had one legislator call and yell at me" about the standards since the standards-writing and -review teams were convened at the turn of the year.

Said Ms. Spearman, the state chief: "If we hadn't done this review and rewrite, we would be fighting this battle again this year in the legislature."

Not everyone agrees. Some anti-common-core activists, such as Alice Yoder of the Piedmont Parents Involved in Education, have accused the state of bungling the standards-writing process and failing to rely on states that had well-regarded standards before the common core, such as Massachusetts.

More generally, the same state K-12 bureaucracy that agreed to use the common core shouldn't necessarily be trusted to craft truly distinct standards, said Barton Swaim, a spokesman for the South Carolina Policy Counsel, a Columbia-based conservative think tank that opposes the common core because of the federal government's support for it.

"They are not going to do anything to tick the feds off, ever," Mr. Swaim said.

But Ms. Barton pointed to the certification of the new standards by the University of South Carolina and Clemson University, among others, as "college- and career-ready" as proof that those who have a stake in the new standards believe they are well done.

The adoption of new standards doesn't mean South Carolina can breathe easy.

The same law that required the state to adopt new standards prohibited schools from administering the Smarter Balanced assessments aligned to the common core and required the state to pick a new test. The state administered English/language arts and math tests from ACT Inc. in grades 3-8 during the 2014-15 school year—the year in which the common core was in place.

Related Blog

But in April, a state procurement-review panel voided the $58 million contract the state had given ACT for its state test. That's left a gap where the 2015-16 statewide English/language arts and math exams should be.

"The sooner we can get this settled, the better. Because there's a lot of work to get ready for next year's testing," Ms. Spearman said.

The state is also considering conducting a survey of teachers after the upcoming school year about the new standards, including the extent to which they are age-appropriate.

"The way to handle that is to keep revising them. The process of writing standards should never be static," said Sandra Ray, a teacher at Oak Pointe Elementary School in School District 5 of Lexington and Richland counties. (Ms. Ray was not involved with the writing or review teams.) Like the Oversight Committee and Ms. Forte, she said she thinks the common core and South Carolina's new standards are very similar.

And Ms. Ray is focusing on her own interactions with the school community to provide information and receive feedback. She says her school's Parent University events, along with report cards, are important platforms to discuss with parents how new standards can lead to new methods of instruction that might differ from how they were taught.

"We've changed standards so many times," she said. "Why would this be any different?"

Vol. 34, Issue 32, Pages 1,25

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