BANGOR, Maine — In spite of strong, grassroots efforts against it, Common Core — a set of voluntary national education standards designed to advance student achievement and adopted by many states — largely survived a tumultuous legislative year in Maine.
Across the country, impassioned debates about education standards and testing this year resulted in some 750 pieces of state legislation aimed at changing Common Core. Eleven of those were before Maine lawmakers this year — yet most faltered.
Before the start of this legislative session, Sen. Brian Langley, the Republican chairman of the Legislature’s education and cultural affairs committee, said he sat down with co-chairwoman and longtime teacher Rep. Victoria Kornfield, D-Bangor.
“We really came to an understanding that we were going to support the educational community by staying the course,” Langley said. That course is a continued, measured push toward standards-based diplomas, teacher evaluation and assessments, and implementation of Common Core-based standards.
Other states, such as Indiana, Oklahoma and South Carolina, dropped the national standards amid the wave of resistance that flared in 2013-14. Missouri and Tennessee are reviewing their standards in preparation for dropping out. Four states never implemented them.
Langley argued that communities and local school boards have already invested so much time and money in the pursuit of these goals that asking them to reverse course would be damaging. All but nine U.S. states have Common Core standards on the books.
“We respected what we were hearing from the frontlines,” Langley said.
That frontline chatter, largely from teachers, parents and some administrators, was marked by complaints about the first year of testing based on Common Core standards, according to Langley. That resulted in the passage of what was probably the most significant education policies to come out of the legislative session.
Under LD 1276, signed into law by Gov. Paul LePage in June, the state will drop out of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium after just one year. That consortium, which consisted of about 20 states this year, provides member states with tests and support to meet Common Core standards.
Langley said lawmakers heard widespread complaints from their constituent parents, teachers and students about the Smarter Balanced tests. Concerns ranged from poorly worded questions, to system errors, to lengthy completion times, he said. There were far fewer complaints from educators about the standards themselves, he added.
Other states saw issues as well, and legislatures in both Connecticut and Missouri voted to drop Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium tests after the debut year. Several members of the other large testing consortium, Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), which represents 12 states, also will be bailing on their test to find an alternative. Ohio became the latest to jump ship on the last day of June.
Maine education officials have assembled a task force of 24 educators and school administrators, joined by Department of Education staff including the commissioner, who will explore options for a replacement test. The department has said it’s interested in a computer-based test, and it won’t return to paper bubble sheets. The new test also will be aligned with the Common Core.
A few other notable education bills passed this year, including one aimed at protecting student data, one to ban any potential testing of students before third grade, and another to create a council that will craft a five-year plan for the implementation of proficiency-based graduation requirements across the state.
What didn’t pass?
Some of the most substantive changes surrounding Common Core standards and standardized testing proposed this year fell flat.
LD 1396 would have forced the state to drop the Common Core standards it wove into its Maine Learning Results and develop its own standards, consistent with those that Massachusetts had before it adopted Common Core. Proponents argue those standards were more rigorous and effective than Common Core.
LD 1153 would have repealed all laws surrounding the implementation of proficiency-based graduation requirements and allowed school districts to “opt out” of Common Core implementation and statewide student testing.
Both bills failed to pass muster with the Education Committee.
Two education bills that gained the initial approval of the Legislature were vetoed by LePage. The first, LD 695, would have required the Department of Education to publish an annual report on parental testing opt-out rights.
The governor’s veto letter called the bill “completely unnecessary,” as that information is already publicly available. He argued the proper way of handling the opt-out movement was to select a new testing system that eliminates the problems found in Smarter Balanced.
The other veto was of LD 764, which would have imposed a one-year delay on the start of the state’s teacher performance evaluation system. The governor said he vetoed the bill because it duplicated an earlier bill that became law in April.
The Legislature later sustained those vetoes, killing the bills.
This year, however, may be the highest-profile one yet for Common Core, according to experts who have been tracking changes and resistance to the standards across the country. This was the first year that most states, Maine included, administered tests based on the national set of standards. In many cases, it didn’t go well.
Still, experts say, the standards themselves came through relatively unscathed.
“There’s this very strong narrative around Common Core about growing opposition — both political opposition among policymakers and political elites as well as among citizens,” Patrick McGuinn, chairman of the political science department of Drew University, said during a recent online presentation to education reporters across the country. “But I think rumors of the demise of Common Core have been greatly exaggerated.”
Common Core opponents want to step away from national standards and allow states, or in some cases individual school districts, to develop their own sets of learning requirements. Supporters of national standards believe that would result in states lagging behind and failing to meet the needs of all students.
The 750 standards and testing-related bills that hit U.S. lawmakers’ desks in 2015 are about double the number of bills they saw in 2014. Of those 750, just 138 have been adopted or enacted, according to a dashboard of legislation assembled by the National Conference of State Legislatures. About 470 failed or were vetoed by governors, while the rest are pending.
More action should be expected next year, as it’s unlikely that the pushback against Common Core will dissipate entirely. Several groups, including No Common Core Maine, parent groups, the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center, and Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin have pledged to continue to work to reduce the sway of the standards in Maine, even if they can’t get rid of them outright.
Poliquin’s office recently released a statement lauding the U.S. House of Representatives’ approval of the Student Success Act, which is essentially a rewrite of No Child Left Behind. The new language aims to scale back the role federal government plays in public education and bring more decision-making power to the states.
The bill would allow states to opt out of Common Core standards without federal financial penalties. It also expands school choice for low-income students and eliminates about 60 federal education programs and allocates those dollars elsewhere.
The controversial No Child Left Behind Act expired in 2007, but it remains in effect until Congress passes a new version. Both the U.S. House and Senate have passed rewrites. Now it’s up to Congress to sort through more than 100 proposed amendments and cobble together a version that meets the approval of lawmakers and won’t provoke a veto from President Barack Obama.
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.