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S.C. State Board Boss Lambasts Mick Zais, But Has Dim Hopes for Smarter Balanced

The fight over the Smarter Balanced test in South Carolina is starting to resemble an education policy equivalent of Capture the Flag. Let's review the fraught chronology of the test over the past two weeks.

• On April 3, the state's deputy superintendent sends a letter to districts telling them to suspend Smarter Balanced field-testing because South Carolina planned to drop it.

• On April 9, the state board of education, which was unaware that the letter had been sent, voted to stick with the Smarter Balanced tests, which are aligned to the Common Core State Standards.

• On April 14, state Superintendent Mick Zais sent state board Chairman Barry Bolen a letter saying that regardless of the board's vote, he had the unilateral authority to withdraw the state from the Smarter Balanced consortium and was doing so, in the name of picking another test. 

On the assumption that it was Bolen's turn to respond, I touched based with him on April 17. Bolen said that Zais is right that he has the ability to withdraw the state from the Smarter Balanced consortium all by himself. However, according to Bolen, Zais doesn't have the power to decide on his own that the state will no longer use the Smarter Balanced test.

"You cannot ignore or arbitrarily undo the fact that the state board exercised its authority to adopt an assessment," he said, arguing that a bunch of "made-up nonsense" is fueling the fight. "And that's what we've done."

He said the state board consulted a private attorney for that opinion and will notify Zais about it. But he indicated that it's probably futile for the state board to engage Zais in a legal fight, especially since Zais is not seeking reelection this year.

He called the state department's letter on April 3, and Zais' April 14 letter, "a slap in the face" for the state board: "It's total disregard for checks and balances. This ain't some church committee you volunteered for."

However, Bolen acknowledged that the state legislature, because of a couple of bills getting serious consideration, will likely bar the state from using the Smarter Balanced assessment anyway. He says he's ultimately not too upset about those bills, since they'll allow the common core itself to survive in South Carolina. And he said that the fight is really about Zais' "ulterior motive" to get the state out of the common core altogether.

As for those legislators trying to toss the Smarter Balanced test overboard?

"If there weren't a very vocal group out there that these legislators felt like they need to appease, we wouldn't be having this conversation," Bolen said, referring to anti-common-core activists in South Carolina. "There are political realities that they have to deal with."

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