updated April 28
Critics of the Common Core State Standards Initiative are watching as lawmakers prepare to resume a debate next week on whether the state should withdraw from the standards. The standards define what students should know in English and math by the end of each grade.
A so-called compromise bill before the Senate would institute a cyclical review of the standards by 2018. Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill, is spearheading that bill. Other lawmakers would have the state withdraw from the standards altogether. Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Charleston, is working on legislation along those lines.
But even some educators in the private sector aren’t opposed to the standards. “We have always pursued Common Core before it was called Common Core,” said Larry Watt by phone Wednesday.
Watt is the Executive Director of the South Carolina Independent School Association, a group that boasts 117 member schools, approximately 80 percent of which offer education in grades k-12. The remainder are elementary schools.
What people find objectionable about the standards is the widespread standardization, said Watt. He notes that schools are going to keep parents in mind when choosing curriculum.
While the State Board of Education rejected a proposal by the Department of Education to withdraw from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium under the standards earlier this month, the agency has generally opposed the standards. Superintendent of Education, Dr. Mick Zais has since quit the assessment. He wrote last week in a letter to the board chairman, Barry Bolen of his decision, saying he had since discovered he alone had the authority to withdraw from the consortium.
“Dr. Zais has always been opposed to the Common Core State Standards because they’re one-size, fits-all standards that don’t provide for customization and personalization,” wrote Anna Burns, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, in an email earlier this month.
But Watt’s schools pursue what he called the higher order thinking skills of analysis and synthesis promoted by the standards. Schools are free to choose their own curriculum according to those criteria, though curriculum accreditation is required.
Students attending schools in the association are 2.4 years ahead of their peers nationally. Watt couldn’t give an apples-to-apples comparison with in-state students at public schools because of the frequency of changes in standardized testing. Schools affiliated with SCISA use the Stanford Achievement Test to assess their students.
In 2004 the state began measuring student achievement using the High School Assessment Program (HSAP), a high school exit exam. This summer will be the last year students will take the HSAP. The state quit the Palmetto Achievement Challenge Test (PACT) after 2008, switching to the Palmetto Assessment of State Standards (PASS). PASS will be used until next school year.
SCISA’s average graduation rate is 99.2 percent, and Watt attributed the remainder to students moving and transferring to other schools. Students graduating from schools in the association have a college acceptance rate of 97 percent.
The state’s public school graduation rate for the 2012-2013 school year was 77.5 percent up from 73.6 percent two years earlier.
As of the 2011-2012 school year it cost approximately $11,000 to educate each South Carolina public school student. Those funds come from the federal, state and local levels.
By contrast, tuition for most schools in Watt’s association ranges from $5,000 to $8,000 per year, though he didn’t have an average tuition figure immediately available. Some schools charge double that—high school tuition at Heathwood Hall Episcopal School in Columbia is more than $16,000 for the current school year. Another Columbia-based school in the association, Covenant Classical Christian School charges approximately $5,000 per year for high school tuition. Kindergarten and elementary school tuitions generally cost less.
“There’s no study at all that justifies putting more money into an assembly line system,” said Watt, referring to public school outcomes in relation to cost. But Watt also attributed some of the discrepancy in student outcomes to private schools being more selective. Public schools must accept all students.
Earlier this month, we reported that Burns wrote in an email that many schools in poorer districts are among the highest performing schools in the state. “Funding is not the problem, the issue is having the right administrators and teachers in the school.”