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State Chiefs: Common Core Requires Flexibility, Not a Pause

The Council of Chief State School Officers is rejecting calls for a moratorium on any high stakes tied to the Common Core State Standards, and is instead suggesting that states have almost all of the power they need to smooth the way for what could be a rocky transition.

What the chiefs do want, however, is some flexibility from the U.S. Department of Education and from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan—from No Child Left Behind itself or the waivers already granted—during these next couple of tricky years as the common core is fully implemented and common tests come on line. In fact, about three-dozen chiefs or their representatives met with three high-level federal department officials last week in Chicago to talk about these issues. Specifically, they say they need some wiggle room in three areas, according to a document CCSSO has drafted:

Accountability: States want to be able to hold school-accountability designations steady for a couple of years after the 2012-13 school year during the transition to new tests, which are scheduled to debut in the spring of 2015. This flexibility could apply to states that may want to change their existing waiver plans, or for non-waiver states who need relief under NCLB. This means, for example, that a low-performing "priority" or "focus" school identified at the end of this school year would keep this designation through the transition. The chiefs say they will still publicly report data each year of the transition, and make accountability interventions in schools, but want to hold the labels steady. Or, a state could choose to emphasize other factors, such as graduation rates, during the transition years. Many states with NCLB waivers have already built this wiggle room into their plans by, for example, requiring schools identified as "priority" to remain there at least three years. So, it seems reasonable that the department would be open to other states that want to amend their plans to hold certain accountability designations steady.

Teacher evaluations: The chiefs say they want federal officials to be open to states' requests for delaying the use of test scores in teacher evaluations. Chris Minnich, the executive director of CCSSO, said few states would likely need such a delay. This could potentially be the biggest area of contention between the feds and states. These timelines are very important to federal officials, who have embedded them into the waiver requirements. Federal officials have not approved Illinois' waiver request, for example, because the state cannot meet these aggressive teacher-evaluation deadlines.

Tests: States should be able to choose which tests to administer for accountability purposes in 2013-14, the chiefs say. This is an issue for the states in one of the two consortia developing common tests, Smarter Balanced, which will give pilot tests to a significant number of students. These 25 states are worried about double testing students by giving them both the pilot and the regular state test. So CCSSO wants federal officials to be open to allowing those states to use the pilot test for accountability purposes. CCSSO doesn't think this is a federal issue at all, and is just laying out the problem without a specific solution. Federal officials, however, may feel differently and may not want a test that's just being piloted to be used for accountability purposes.

The chiefs are clearly staking out a formal position in the tug-of-war over how states should manage accountability in the run-up to new tests that reflect the common core. Idaho chief Tom Luna told my colleague Catherine Gewertz that it's "absolutely critical that it's known that we are moving to a higher level of accountability. Nobody is looking for a pause or relief from accountability."

So far, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten has called for a pause in using the tests for high-stakes decisions, and so has Montgomery County, Md., Schools Superintendent Joshua Starr. As has Kati Haycock, the president of the Education Trust, which advocates on behalf of disadvantaged children.

The Chiefs for Change, a small group of chiefs who push more-market-based reforms, responded in an open letter by rejecting such calls for a pause.

Hanna Skandera, the New Mexico schools' chief and the chair of Chiefs for Change, says that at the highest levels Chiefs for Change and CCSSO are in complete lockstep: "Why wait to do the right things for kids? Accountability delayed isn't real accountability."

(One slight difference exists between the two groups, however: Chiefs for Change does not want to see states delay teacher-evaluation implementation, which was part of the federal NCLB waiver process. From the perspective of Skandera's group, "if we ask for a waiver and make commitments we intend to keep them," she said.)

Most of all, CCSSO says there is no single, one-size-fits-all solution on how to manage these messy transition years. June Atkinson, the North Carolina chief, told Catherine that every state is on a different timeline, with different rules, regulations, and state laws.

There's no word yet on what federal officials think of CCSSO's requests for more flexibility. For his part, Arne Duncan has been relatively quiet, with his office saying only that officials are "thinking through" the concerns.

Attending last week's meeting, on behalf of Duncan, were Jim Shelton (acting deputy secretary), Deb Delisle, (assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education), and Jack Buckley (commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics at the Institute of Education Sciences).

Education Week's Catherine Gewertz contributed to this post.

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