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A potential power struggle over Common Core tests

The superintendents identify themselves as members of the Southern Idaho Conference — a throwback to the times that their meetings focused on hashing out football schedules.

These days, the superintendents are taking on more substantive matters — such as how to test students to the new Idaho Core Standards.

On Tuesday, we broke the story about how Treasure Valley school officials are urging the state to rethink an online exam tailored after the new core standards. The state Education Department says it plans to stay the course, but Superintendent Tom Luna will meet with the superintendents on Dec. 20.

The superintendents support the Common Core standards. But they have a long list of concerns with the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium exam, which the Education Department wants to field-test across the state this spring. Mountain Home district Superintendent Tim McMurtrey wonders if his students have the computer and keyboarding skills to handle this online exam. Emmett’s Wayne Rush is worried about finding adequate computer access, especially in his more rural grade schools.

But in an interview with four of the superintendents Tuesday, classroom time emerged as the galvanizing issue.

The Boise School District piloted the SBAC exam in a few schools last spring, Superintendent Don Coberly said, and it took longer than expected. So the superintendents aren’t convinced third- through 11th-graders will be able to finish the exam in eight hours, as the state predicts.

Coberly says he has had concerns about the SBAC assessment for some time; in a May interview with Idaho Education News, he said the state should ease into the testing. But the more he has learned about the time commitment, the more he is convinced the state should change course.

The superintendents have suggested a plan B: a less time-consuming multiple choice test for third- through eighth-graders, and using the Scholastic Aptitude Test to assess 11th graders. The SAT is a college-placement exam, and it is not synced with the new Common Core standards in math and English language arts. But it does at least measure college readiness, says Coberly  — and that, after all, is the bottom-line objective of the Common Core standards.

To no small extent, this comes down to a power struggle between the Education Department and some of the state’s most populous school districts.

The Southern Idaho Conference includes the state’s three largest school districts — Meridian, Boise and Nampa. But it’s a diverse group of nine districts, including rural districts such as Middleton and Emmett. With a total enrollment of about 106,000 students, the districts account for roughly 38 percent of Idaho’s overall K-12 population.

That’s a considerable bloc. And it will be interesting to see if other districts, large or small, voice their opposition to the SBAC exams.

Meanwhile, the Education Department has thrown its muscle behind the SBAC, and is no bit player in the 23-state exam rollout. Idaho is a governing state in SBAC, meaning it has a vote in the rollout of the exam. Luna Chief of Staff Luci Willits is one of seven members of SBAC’s executive committee — and a staunch advocate of the exam the districts want to put on hold.

Rush recognizes that state officials may be unwilling to budge on their assessment plans, for fear of losing face. “I don’t even blame them.”

But superintendents are encouraged that Luna is willing to hear them out, and are curious to see where the discussion goes. “Is there room for compromise here?” Vallivue Superintendent Pat Charlton said.

Kevin Richert is a reporter and blogger at Idaho Education News (idahoednews.org). Kevin is a former Statesman editorial page editor, with 27 year's experience in Idaho journalism.

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