Utah drops out of consortium developing Common Core tests
Education • While membership gave state a voice, critics feared federal intrusion.
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The state school board decided to withdraw Friday from a consortium of states working to develop tests based on new Common Core academic standards, after months of pressure from some conservatives.

The change doesn't necessarily mean Utah can't still adopt the tests if it wishes, but it will no longer have a strong voice in their development.

Mainly, the move appeared to be a way to quiet some of the controversy surrounding the standards and help Utah move forward in choosing new tests from among a number of options, including the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, from which Utah withdrew Friday.

Pulling out of the consortium will allow Utah to choose new tests based on the Common Core without prior associations with any one group, which could be seen as a conflict of interest, some argued.

"I just don't know that we need to be in Smarter Balanced at this time," said board member Dave Thomas. "... Given all the controversy surrounding it and the fact that I don't know that it benefits us right now, that's the reason I vote to withdraw."

Board member Kim Burningham, however, said he didn't understand why the board would withdraw from the consortium when being a part of it didn't obligate Utah to anything. The board voted 12-3 to withdraw.

"To suddenly withdraw from that opportunity for getting input seems to be shutting our eyes, and I'm afraid it's just for political reasons," Burningham said. "I don't see any reason to do it."

Michael Petrilli, executive director of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative Washington, D.C.-based think tank, said last week before a visit to Salt Lake City that it seemed premature to pull out of the consortium before seeing how the tests turn out.

He said withdrawing would only mean less influence for Utah over the tests, "so if the concern is Utah doesn't have enough control over its destiny, I'm not sure it makes a lot of sense."

However, the move pleased some of those who have been the most vocal critics of the consortium and the Common Core. The Common Core standards, which Utah voluntarily adopted two years ago, describe the concepts students should learn in each grade to be ready for college and careers. In the next few years, Utah will need to adopt new tests to reflect those new standards.

Critics had worried that the state's involvement in the consortium would lead to federal intrusion into Utah schools, because the consortium had accepted federal dollars to help develop the assessments.

"Assessments should be our choice, and we shouldn't get in any entanglements of any kind that obligates us as a state to any kind of assessment," said Gayle Ruzicka, head of the conservative Utah Eagle Forum. She said Utah is now free to use tests developed locally, though state education leaders have repeatedly emphasized that membership in the consortium didn't obligate Utah to any test.

And Alisa Ellis, a Heber parent who helped organize an anti-Common Core event last month, said of the state board, "I applaud their willingness to listen to the people and get out of the testing."

Both women, however, said they'd still like to see Utah drop the Common Core standards as well.

Utah critics of the standards have claimed they will also result in federal intrusion into state schools, though the standards were not federally developed or imposed. Opponents worry they will mean a loss of local control.

Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, refuted those allegations in a presentation to the state board Friday.

The council led to the creation of the standards, and he traveled to Utah to talk about the issues.

"There are no standards police out there watching a state or saying to a state you must implement these standards any one way," Wilhoit said. "States may add to these standards as they wish."

State education leaders and the U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have also confirmed that Utah retains complete control over its standards.

In fact, on Friday, a state school board committee voted to ask a State Office of Education group to examine whether to continue teaching cursive, though it's not a formal part of the Common Core. That committee will examine research related to cursive over the next school year and then report its findings to the state board, which may then choose to add it to the Common Core, though educators may continue to teach it regardless.

lschencker@sltrib.com