JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — It all started modestly during 2009, when several organizations, including the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, began to notice test scores and content on “exit” exams for high schools across the country varied wildly. The differences in what children across the nation are being taught — and what standards their education was measured by — were so varied that the NGA and the CCSSO agreed something had to be done.
The solution? A single set of standards and grading criteria that could be implemented by each state nationwide, so that an eighth grade student in California is being graded on the same level as an eighth grader in South Carolina.
Private funding, largely coming from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to the tune of $35 million, launched the project into reality and federal grants from the Race To the Top initiative are now largely tied into participation in the new standards. The result? Common Core State Standards, a program currently voluntarily adopted by 45 states, including Missouri.
The standards are slated to be fully implemented by 2015 across the country, where students in every state will begin taking new examinations at the end of the school year to determine how and if the new standards are being met. Common Core and its materials deal with new learning standards for mathematics and English-language arts, where the United States ranks near the bottom in overall comprehension among industrialized nations.
But the standards and the complex relationship between states, an assessment consortium and the U.S. Department of Education have some Missouri parents and lawmakers concerned. And while the adoption of Common Core was voluntary, President Obama’s call for states to adopt college and career readiness standards in order to receive federal waivers for the No Child Left Behind Act essentially make the adoption mandatory, critics have said. But DESE clarified that any college and career readiness standards would have sufficed for the waiver. The state of Georgia, which did not adopt common core standard but did write their own college and career readiness standards, was given a NCLB waiver.
“I’m not questioning the intentions of the Department,” Jill Carter, an East Newton School District parent told The Missouri Times. “I just want to make sure that local control means the same thing to me as it does to them, I want to understand the specifics of some of this program and it’s been very difficult to get those specifics.”
Carter has been heavily involved since last spring in the discussions of Common Core in her school district, even organizing an event for those opposed and in favor to speak directly to her superintendent and a DESE representative. Carter said she offered to cover all the expenses for a DESE representative to come to her event, but the department declined.
Seeking to block the standards
In Missouri, some conservative lawmakers have sought to block the implementation of Common Core as a part of the Missouri Learning Standards, citing either concerns over local control or cost to DESE in implementing new electronic assessment related to common core as primary concerns.
At a hearing of the House Interim Committee on Improving Government Responsiveness, Efficiency and Accountability, parents called on lawmakers to compel the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to answer what they called “unanswered questions” about common core.
Common Core standards establish new criteria for assessing students, but does not compel or require specific curriculum or teaching methodology, according to DESE. While local districts will be forced to assess and educate students based on the Common Core standards — something some parents and Republican lawmakers have called an overreach of state education officials — curriculum and teaching materials will still be left up to the individual district.
“If you want to know say what is going to be on the new required reading list for your child in high school, you can’t find that at DESE because we don’t tell districts what to have their children read,” Sharon Helwig, Assistant Commissioner of Education for Curriculum, told The Missouri Times. “In Missouri, local districts will always suggest their own reading materials and textbooks and Common Core Standards won’t change that.”
During the last legislative session, Rep. Kurt Bahr, R-Weldon Spring, proposed legislation flatly blocking Common Core implementation. Other bills, like a Senate bill sponsored by Sen. John Lamping, R-St. Louis County, would have required DESE to conduct mandatory question-and-answer sessions and presentations in each of Missouri’s congressional districts before their respective schools fully adopted Common Core. Both bills were unsuccessful.
Bahr cited cost and data collection as his primary concerns, telling The Missouri Times last spring that the cost was “virtually unknown,” and calling on DESE to be more transparent about the potential financial impact on local districts.
But that cost may be hard to estimate. Lindbergh School Board member and state Rep. Vicki Englund, D-St. Louis, said that calculating the cost of the new standards is not as easy as it seems.
“Once we put these standards in, we’ll begin to see which schools are doing well and which schools are going to need the most help in terms of resources to meet these standards,” Englund said. “You can guess and try to design an estimation, but I don’t think it’s fair to ask them to calculate the exact cost before we begin this and see what the results are.”
Lindbergh is one of many districts in the state already piloting Common Core in their schools and Englund is supportive of the standards.
“This isn’t something Congress just came up with or some shadowy organization drew up or something that President Obama just drummed up one day,” Englund said. “This has been going on for years among education professionals and a lot of hands have been at work in trying to design higher standards for our children so they can compete with each other and with a global community better.”
Englund also said the implementation of the standards is fundamentally misunderstood and some representatives aren’t aware that the children in their districts are already largely doing the work.
“It’s not like a new textbook will suddenly be placed on a teachers desk and we say ‘teach this now,’” Englund said. “That’s not how this works. A lot of this is just putting a name to something that a lot of districts are already doing with great success.”
Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium and Privacy
As the standards begin to become a reality around the country, new tests were needed to assess the success of the program and student growth. The Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium is a collection of states that have come together along with their Common Core standards to design a new test for students under the standards. Early on, critics claimed the SBAC would be collecting a wealth of new data from individual students — a charge DESE has said is false.
“We won’t be collecting any more data than we did previously with the Common Core Standards or the assessments,” DESE Communications Director Sarah Potter said. “It’ll be exactly what we’ve always collected and all the data we collect is on our website for parents to see.”
Potter further clarified that DESE doesn’t not collect or utilize individually identifiable information of Missouri students, and that all data collection related to Common Core would still be under the purview of state and federal privacy laws.
While DESE won’t be releasing any student data, it would appear that data could still find its way to the federal government through the SBAC. At the focus of the uncertainty is the cooperative agreement between SBAC and the U.S. Department of Education, as well as changed made by the Department of Education to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA).
The changes began with The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which encompassed the new Race To the Top federal grant program for struggling schools and calls for participating states to “establish a longitudinal data system that includes the elements described in America COMPETES ACT.”
Regarding student privacy, the America COMPETES Act section 6401(e)(2)(D) reads: “A unique statewide student identifier that does not permit a student to be individually identified by users of the system.”
Potter said DESE will own and control all the data used by the SBAC or other vendors in managing and grading the assessments, but could not state definitively whether the SBAC would be permitted to send that data to the U.S. Department of Education pursuant to their cooperative agreement.
In a statement made available by DESE, which was originally issued to the Department last spring, SBAC executive director Joe Willhoft denied that any student-level data would be sent to the U.S. Department of Education.
“As executive director of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, I can unequivocally state that there is no agreement, nor discussion of any arrangement, between Smarter Balanced and USDOE regarding transmission of student-level data to USDOE,” the statement reads.
However, the cooperative agreement between SBAC and the department seems to contradict Willhoft’s statement about student-level data.
According to the agreement, SBAC must assist in “working with the department to develop a strategy to make student-level data that results from the assessment system available on an ongoing basis for research.”
DESE told The Missouri Times that “student-level” data was not defined as data that was personally identifiable, but information like individual-classroom performance.
The Department of Education listed “myth v. fact” information on their website dealing largely with the collection of data associated with Common Core.
“The Department does not, and will not, request or collect Personally Identifiable Information (PII) from the consortia and it is not legally authorized to create a student-level database,” the website states. “As stewards of the taxpayers’ funds, the Department collects basic project information—such as aggregate research results, but not PII—to evaluate the progress the grantees are making.”
In responding to inquiries about a national student database and the possible collection of PII data, the Department made the following statement:
“The Department does not collect personally identifiable information at all except as required for mandated tasks such as administering student loans and grants and investigating individual complaints. The Department is not legally authorized to create a national, student-level database and has no intention to create a student records data system at the national level.”
“When DESE tells me ‘we won’t release information to the federal government,’ what I want to know is, is that a half-truth?” Carter said. “Because the SBAC seems to be doing that very thing.”
Potter said this process of releasing data to third party vendors while maintain state control is the common practice for statewide assessments, and that the process is not changing because of the SBAC or Common Core Standards. However, because of rules changes within the U.S. Department of Education and agreements between SBAC and the federal government, what Missouri does with its student data may be a moot point, if the SBAC can release information itself.
Changes to FERPA
Information, now in the coiffeurs of the U.S. Department of Education, is more likely to be released to other government agencies thanks to rules changes within the Department relating to FERPA and the release of Personally Identifiable Information (PII).
During April of 2011, the U.S. Department of Education proposed a number of rules changes in relation to their compliance with FERPA. In these rules changes, definitions were broadened to allow access to the information gathered by the department about individual students to other government entities.
Data usage remains the same and FERPA states information can only be released for “audit, evaluation or any compliance or enforcement activity in connection with Federal legal requirements that relate to these programs.”
Whereas earlier restrictions said the Department could only non-consensually release PII to agencies under the direct control of an education authority, new restrictions allow for such a release for any program that is “principally engaged” in education, regardless of whether they are under direct control of a state educational authority.
Any government agency involved with an education program may now have information about individual students released to them. This, then, begs the question — what is defined as an “education program” by FERPA law?
An education program is defined in the new rules more broadly as: “any program that is principally engaged in the provision of education, including, but not limited to, early childhood education, elementary and secondary education, postsecondary education, special education, job training, career and technical education, and adult education, and any program that is administered by an educational agency or institution.”
Within this definition, there are even more changes. “Early childhood education” is now any program that “services children from birth to age six that addresses the children’s cognitive (including language, early literacy and early mathematic), social, emotional and physical development.”
The inclusion of programs devoted to “emotional and physical development” has some critics concerns that government programs and agencies far-flung from the purposes of traditional education will have access to PII on thousands, or even millions, of students. The proposal from the department says there is “no reason” that certain data shouldn’t be more widely available.
“There is no reason why a state Health and Human Services or Labor Department, for example, should be precluded from servicing as the authority’s authorized representative and receiving non-consensual disclosures of PII to link education, auditing, or enforcing Federal legal requirements related to, Federal or State supported education programs,” the proposal reads.
The bigger debate and the coming budget fight
The issue represents a larger, philosophical divide over education. While some critics maintain national standards are not feasible or logical, DESE officials maintain that collaboration with other states is not only the best practice, but called for in-state law.
The 1994 Outstanding Schools Act in Missouri calls on DESE to work in consortium with other states and non-Missouri organizations to develop new, higher standards for public education.
DESE also maintains they have ownership over Missouri Learning Standards, which encompass Common Core, and that the standards were not formally adopted until after completion and feedback from hundreds of Missouri citizens and educators.
“The idea that we adopted these before they were written is just wrong,” Potter said. “We agreed to help write them, and we were part of that process, but we didn’t formally adopt them until they were complete and had been reviewed and we’d gotten feedback from within our own state.”
The licensing agreement for the Common Core Standards, critics say, keeps ownership of the standards under the control of the NGA and the CCSSO. However, DESE officials maintain that as a member of CCSSO, they consider themselves owners of the standards.
Carter and other parents speaking to lawmakers last week at the House Interim Committee on Improving Government Responsiveness, Efficiency and Accountability said that the standards allow for a 15 percent addition to them so teachers can, when necessary, deviate from the copy-written standards. The parents said this simply wasn’t enough.
“Fifteen percent doesn’t sound like much to me and when you consider some of that is taken up by state requirements like the Missouri Constitution test, there isn’t much room for a teacher to improvise,” Carter said.
DESE disagrees, saying that teachers have “plenty of leeway,” one official said, in determining when to go “off script” in the classroom.
DESE’s contract with its current statewide assessment vendor is up, so regardless of common core standards, new assessments and a new vendor are needed to test Missouri children at the end of the year.
By October 1, DESE will have chosen a vendor for the new assessments related to common core, assessments which will largely be electronic. The cost to the state for the new assessments is likely to go up and when DESE approaches a lawmaking body largely divided on the issue of common core, the budget process of funding new assessments will likely be the site of the battle determining whether common core survives in Missouri.
“Our intention, if we get the funds we need, is to not ask local districts to pay any more for their assessments than they do right now,” Potter said. “We’re hoping to be able to say exactly how much we need in the next few weeks, and then we’ll be working on gathering those funds.”
But if lawmakers, some wary of common core standards, don’t disburse the funds for new assessments, the cost could be passed onto local districts, creating a dire financial burden for many schools that will simply be impossible to fulfill. With the full implementation of the standards by 2015 as a requirement for their use, the stakes for DESE in gathering funds — or for the critics in rallying opposition in the Capitol to block them — will certainly be high during the next two budget cycles.