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N.H. House votes against dismantling Common Core

Five bills aimed at scaling back portions of the Common Core education standards or the new tests associated with them failed to gain support in the House yesterday.

“Termination for all this effort and activity would be nothing less than chaotic for our students, teachers and others,” said Rep. Mary Stuart Gile, a Concord Democrat and chairwoman of the House Education Committee.

Common Core is a set of English language arts and math standards meant to better prepare U.S. students to compete on an international stage. New Hampshire’s State Board of Education adopted them in 2010, joining more than 40 other states that are also using the standards. Districts here have been implementing the new standards since. Nationwide, opponents are calling on states to leave the standards behind, and some states are warning of high stakes they believe will come with the new tests, known as the Smarter Balanced Assessment.

One of the bills yesterday would have stopped state involvement in the standards completely. Another would have tasked a committee with studying the test and possibly delaying it. A third would have required the state Department of Education to analyze the costs of the standards and to hold public hearings before the adoption of any new state standards. The other two bills focused on student data collection in the new tests.

“I thought we wanted excellence in education, not the mediocrity that these standards will produce,” said Rep. Laura Jones, a Rochester Republican.

Two key elements of yesterday’s debate focused on whether the standards mandate what happens in local classrooms and whether the tests are ready to be used.

The Manchester and Alton school boards have voted to develop their own set of standards, which will build on Common Core. No district is required to follow the standards, but every district must give the new tests. Some opponents of the standards also say they create an unfunded mandate because districts need proper technology to implement the computer-based tests. The bill requiring a fiscal analysis of the test was aimed at pinning down the costs of the tests.

“The Department of Education keeps stating that school districts are not mandated to use Common Core, but the statewide testing is based on Common Core, and you can’t have one without the other,” said Rep. Ralph Boehm, a Litchfield Republican. “It’s a mandate, but they need to spin it around New Hampshire’s Constitution.”

Rep. Rick Ladd, a Haverhill Republican and member of the House Education Committee, spoke in favor of the bill to task a committee with studying Smarter Balanced. The original version of the bill would have delayed the test for two years, but Ladd was advocating for an amendment to create a study of the content and methodology of the test. The amendment said students would keep taking the test while a group of legislators studied it. Then, lawmakers would have to approve continuing the test after 2016. The House voted to send this bill to interim study, which doesn’t give it as much time as a full study would have.

The tests focus only on English language arts and math, and Ladd said he worries that would cause teachers to teach to the test and ignore other subjects such as history, civics and sciences. Ladd is a former educator and school principal.

“I support higher standards. I believe the bar needs to be raised,” he said. “But if we have a test that is poorly developed, not validated properly, the standard will be what we have to teach to and we won’t change. We’ll continue going down the same path.”

But supporters of the standards reminded their colleagues that districts still have control over their curriculum. While Common Core creates a uniform set of standards, it doesn’t dictate what textbooks teachers use or what lesson plans and activities they bring into their classrooms.

Supporters also said fears of the tests having high stakes won’t be realized in New Hampshire. No test results will be used in teacher evaluations until the 2016-2017 school year. After that, student performance must account for 20 percent of teacher evaluations. But that 20 percent can include measures other than Smarter Balanced.

Rep. Mel Myler, a Contoocook Democrat and supporter of the standards, said he recognized change would be difficult for students, teachers and parents.

“The Common Core will challenge students, no question about that. It will challenge parents,” he said. “Change is not easy, but in the end the Common Core will ready New Hampshire students to be competitive in the 21st century.”

He also criticized some opponents of presenting mistruths and ideological arguments.

“There is a large gap between legitimate skeptical inquiry and ideological defiance,” he said.

Two bills related to the privacy of student data collected by the tests were referred to interim study. Earlier this session, the House passed a student privacy bill by Rep. Neal Kurk, a Weare Republican, that is now headed to the Senate. The state Department of Education supports Kurk’s bill, which limits what data the state can collect.

(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or kronayne@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @kronayne.)

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