Wisconsin delays implementation of common standards for schools

May 30, 2013 by

Madison — The state Department of Public Instruction would potentially be barred from implementing new common academic standards until hearings are held and new findings issued under a provision a legislative committee tucked into the state budget Wednesday.

The Joint Finance Committee also voted to require high school students to take a suite of age-appropriate ACT tests twice their freshman year and once every year after that.

Dipping into an ongoing dispute over a new student data system, the committee voted to allow school boards to select their own vendors for tracking students, rather than going with a Minnesota company selected by state officials.

That’s a boost for Stevens Point-based Skyward, which was poised to lose much of its Wisconsin business because it didn’t land the statewide contract with the department.

The committee plugged the measures into the state budget. It is expected to wrap up its work next week and will then forward the budget to the Legislature. From there, it will go to Gov. Scott Walker, who can reshape it using his partial veto powers.

Walker spokesman Tom Evenson did not indicate whether the governor supported the measures and said he would review them when the budget gets to his desk. Walker’s fellow Republicans control the Legislature.

The state would be able to keep the math and reading standards it has already implemented under the proposal adopted Wednesday, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

It was unclear whether the measure would prevent the state from implementing common academic standards in other areas, such as science and social studies. Such a move — coupled with changing the student statewide data system to a multivendor contract — could hold up a variety of reform efforts that have been quietly chugging along for the past two years.

The actions contradict how some of the same lawmakers voted in budget deliberations two years ago — a point they acknowledged Wednesday.

The common standards are formally known as the Common Core State Standards, and they outline what children need to know to be college- and career-ready by the end of high school. They are available in reading and math and have been adopted by 45 states, the District of Columbia, four territories and the Department of Defense schools.

Three years ago, Wisconsin adopted these with little fanfare, after a public comment period. Committee members said Wednesday they thought more public input was necessary.

“What we’re doing is putting the pause on Common Core,” said Rep. Dean Knudson (R-Hudson), who proposed the idea.

The measure passed 13-3, with Rep. Cory Mason (D-Racine) joining all Republicans in favor of it.

John Johnson, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Instruction, said Common Core was a program only for math and reading, and not other academic areas. He said his agency needed to review the statutory language that would be put into the budget to see what effect it would have on schools, if any.

Since the core standards were adopted for math and reading, individual school districts have been working to train teachers about what they look like in practice. And the Department of Public Instruction has been involved with moving to a new annual, online standardized test that would be based on those standards.

State Schools Superintendent Tony Evers would be barred from putting in place Common Core standards until his department holds at least three public hearings on the standards and issues a report on them. But the practical effect of that was unclear since Common Core consists only of math and reading, and those standards have already been adopted.

The agency, along with the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, would also have to determine how much it would cost to fully implement the standards and how much it would cost to stop implementation.

A legislative study committee could also be set up under the budget proposal and hold hearings of its own.

Wisconsin is not the only state where the common core standards are encountering flak, some of which has come after a number of conservatives voiced concern about federal influence.

Information system. The committee voted 14-2 to scrap a plan to have one vendor run the student information system, allowing school boards to pick whichever firms they wanted to collect data on students and report it to the state.

The statewide student information system is important because it’s the lynchpin to getting all public schools to submit data in a consistent way to the state, its backers say. But lawmakers said they believe a system could be created that multiple companies could use.

Using a single vendor was also meant to ensure the state gets the same consistent academic information from private schools receiving public funding.

In a letter sent to the committee before the vote, Evers noted that lawmakers voted two years ago to establish a student information system that would collect and maintain information about all pupils in public schools. He also noted that a bipartisan group of lawmakers approved the single-vendor proposal for the state data system in the fall of 2011.

The single-vendor system has been favored because the state would work with one company, and eliminate the need to have different data systems “talk” to each other. That’s often been pointed to as a problem now because schools each have their own data systems sending information to the state.

Many expected that Skyward, which has many of the individual contracts with school districts, would win the blanket state contract.

But when the state Department of Administration announced that Minnesota-based Infinite Campus had scored higher in the bidding process, Skyward and its supporters argued the bidding process was flawed. The company protested the decision, but the DPI did not agree there was a problem.

Skyward asked the Department of Administration to review the DPI’s decision. That review is under way.

Eric Creighton, the chief operating officer for Infinite Campus, issued a statement saying the vote “sets a dangerous precedent for all future state procurements.”

“It tells prospective bidders they can use the political process to get a different outcome if a procurement doesn’t go their way,” his statement said.

Sen. Luther Olsen (R-Ripon) — who voted with Rep. Pat Strachota (R-West Bend) against allowing multiple vendors — agreed with the assessment of Infinite Campus. Reversing course on a decision that has already been made sends the wrong message to business and turns Wisconsin into a “banana republic,” he said.

But other lawmakers said they wanted to preserve jobs in Wisconsin. Skyward employs 290 people in Wisconsin.

ACT. The committee voted 13-3 to largely go along with Walker’s plan to require all high school students to take the suite of ACT testing each year from their freshman to senior years. In addition to the ACT college entrance exams, they would take tests that measure their readiness for work.

They modified the proposal to require students to take two tests their freshman year, which they said would help schools benchmark their students.

The plan is expected to assist in identifying areas where students need more help but would also likely result in test averages going down because all students would take the ACT, not just those planning to attend college.

The ACT suite has been praised by a wide crop of educators who are eager to have data about student progress at the high school level.

A lot of high schools have self-funded the tests, which include tests called EXPLORE, PLAN, ACT and another skills test at the upper grades called WorkKeys.

The state funding would ensure that all schools would have the support to administer the exams.

Charter schools. Under another budget initiative, Walker wants to create a Charter School Oversight Board that would give nonprofit entities the authority to approve new charter schools.

Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), co-chairwoman of the committee, said that proposal may be taken out of the budget so charter changes can be addressed in separate legislation.

Patrick Marley reported for this story from Madison and Erin Richards from Milwaukee.

Budget panel delays implementation of common standards for schools.

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