Republican lawmakers soften their opposition to Common Core

Madison teacher Katie O'Duffy teaches a reading lesson based on the new Common Core State Standards. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said Thursday that new legislation will allow school districts to keep those standards if they like them.

AMBER ARNOLD -- State Journal archives

Top Republican lawmakers are backing away from rhetoric calling for an end to the Common Core State Standards, saying any legislation next year would allow school districts to keep the standards.

The acknowledgments come as Senate and Assembly leaders prepare bills to revamp the state’s school accountability system designed to gauge how well schools educate students. The possible changes include allowing school districts to choose among more than one test.

“We’re not necessarily going to repeal (Common Core) because they are standards adopted by DPI,” said Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, referring to the state Department of Public Instruction. “If (school districts) like the standards, they can keep them. But I think we want to make sure that nobody feels compelled.”

Vos, in a meeting with the Wisconsin State Journal editorial board, said a school accountability bill would be the Assembly’s top priority and that he’s hoping to make it the first bill introduced in January.

Sen. Paul Farrow, R-Pewaukee, who is crafting a Senate version, said the bill would likely allow public and private voucher schools to choose from more than one test that could be accurately compared.

Vos said he isn’t pushing for school districts to use different tests, but he’s open to that possibility, so long as the tests are nationally recognized.

However, having multiple tests could jeopardize the state’s waiver from requirements under the federal No Child Left Behind law and federal funding. That’s because the U.S. Education Department requires Wisconsin students to take an annual test linked to the state’s adopted standards, currently Common Core for English and math, according to DPI.

Gov. Scott Walker, who is contemplating a presidential bid, maintained his call for repealing Common Core.

“Governor Walker has said he wants an accountability bill that includes a repeal of Common Core and bottom line is he wants to make sure that no school district in the state is required to use the Common Core standards,” said spokeswoman Laurel Patrick.

DPI spokesman Tom McCarthy said in a statement that the department hasn’t seen any legislation GOP lawmakers are working on, but that DPI remains supportive of keeping the standards and that “final decisions about standards, curriculum and textbooks must continue to rest with local school boards.”

Standards linked to tests

In 2010, state Superintendent Tony Evers adopted Common Core standards, which are in place only for math and English. But under state law, school districts can adopt their own standards and accompanying curriculum. Most districts use Common Core for those subjects because they align with the Smarter Balanced test, which Wisconsin and 16 other states use to measure student progress on achieving the standards.

For the first time next spring, public school students in third through eighth grades will take the test in English and math. High school students will take the Aspire test and the ACT — both of which have also been linked to the Common Core.

Farrow said he expects the Aspire test, if adapted for more grade levels, to be another option of tests for schools to use.

DPI spokesman John Johnson said allowing school districts to have different standards and offer different tests could cause confusion for families and educators about expectations for schools and call the integrity of the state’s accountability system into question.

“I don’t know how transparent that is anymore with multiple tests,” he said.

Johnson said DPI representatives have not been involved in drafting the legislation.

New accountability bill details

Farrow said the latest Senate draft of the school accountability legislation includes creating a school accountability board that would periodically review the formula used in the state’s school report cards, as well as determine sanctions for individual schools that are under performing.

He said the bill would include interim sanctions that would be put into law until the board created new ones. The board would have discretion to apply appropriate sanctions for each district, Farrow said.

Vos said Senate and Assembly Republicans are meeting to discuss differences in their approaches to school accountability and standards.

“Our position is pretty aggressive in saying we want sanctions to be built in,” Vos said. “Accountability to me means if you get an A, a B, a C, a D or an F, you know exactly what happens with a D. You know exactly what happens with an F.”

Vos said the sanctions for D-rated schools should include things like more teacher training, rather than punitive measures. F-rated schools, whether public, charter or private voucher, should face sanctions after multiple years, such as teacher or leadership replacement, or in the case of voucher schools removal from the program.“It’s really about improving the school, it’s not about being punitive,” Vos said.

Farrow said whether to use letter grades for schools has been a point of debate. He acknowledged that some schools are moving away from using letter grades for students and that the state report card should probably grade schools like students are graded, but the current draft of legislation includes both letter grades and descriptors of how well schools meet state expectations.

Currently, schools are rated on a five-step scale from “significantly exceeds expectations” to “fails to meet expectations,” which public school advocates recommended DPI adopt over letter grades.

Republicans introduced but failed to pass a bill last session that would have eventually replaced the Common Core-aligned test with a test linked to new state standards.

Contact reporter Molly Beck at mbeck@madison.com or 608-252-6135. Contact reporter Matthew DeFour at mdefour@madison.com or 608-252-6144.

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Molly Beck covers politics and state government for the Wisconsin State Journal.

Matthew DeFour covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.