White: Common Core battle may imperil accountability

The legal and political battle over Common Core tests also could sideline key parts of Louisiana’s public school accountability system, state Superintendent of Education John White said.

Letter grades for public schools, whether students qualify for vouchers and the state takeover of troubled schools are among a host of topics linked to maintaining an air-tight test system that is now in limbo, White said.

“All those things rely on accountability scores,” he said.

Public school letter grades are based mostly on how students fare on the sorts of tests that now are up in the air.

Whether students try to flee a troubled public school depends largely on that school’s letter grade.

Schools also are subject to state takeovers depending on how they are rated by the state.

The Jindal administration’s decision to suspend test contracts, White said, means that “you may have to create policies that put a pause” on various accountability measures designed to show taxpayers how public schools, districts and teachers are performing.

Lottie Beebe, a member of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, raised the same possibility during the state board’s special meeting on July 29.

Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols said BESE and the state Department of Education have options to ensure that standardized tests are in place for the upcoming school year, which for many schools statewide begins this week.

But the dispute that pits Gov. Bobby Jindal, Nichols and their allies against White, BESE President Chas Roemer and their allies is the reason that huge test questions remain unresolved days before classes start.

BESE voted 6-4 last week to authorize its special legal counsel to join as intervenors in a pro-Common Core lawsuit filed by parents and teachers.

However, the issue is so muddled that at least three scenarios loom over what, if any, exams students can expect.

How those turn out will determine whether Louisiana, which already has put special rules in place on how public schools and teachers are rated for the 2014-15 school year, has to undo even more of its education oversight measures.

Jindal wants the state out of Common Core and the assessments aimed at seeing what students know and how they compare with their peers in other states.

Nichols’ office has suspended approval of test contracts that White and his agency planned to use.

The lawsuit, which is set for its first hearing on Aug. 12, contends that the Jindal administration’s suspension is illegal and should be lifted.

That issue is expected to be argued before 19th Judicial District Court Judge Todd Hernandez on Aug. 18.

The chief dispute is whether BESE and the department have the final say in crafting test questions, or whether the Division of Administration, through its oversight of state contracts, should play a major role in that process.

White said that, under one scenario, the judge could issue a declaratory judgement that says state educators control the content of the tests.

BESE and the agency could then, depending on appeals, press ahead for the Common Core tests they planned to use for the past four years.

But if Jindal’s forces prevail in court, a second option would be for BESE and state educators to pursue a new test contract, with the questions formulated both by state educators and an advisory team that includes Jindal lieutenants and others.

A third option, and one that White recently broached, would be for the department to come up with tests without using a contract.

“There is nothing in the law that requires a private vendor,” he said.

Nichols said she is unclear on how that would operate.

“The superintendent has made a lot of assertions about how the process, in his mind, can work,” she said.

“But in those statements, I have not heard him give a lot of detail for the justification for that,” Nichols said.

Even without a state contract, White said, coming up with tests would require moving money around that the Jindal administration or the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget would have to approve — a potentially thorny political debate.

If that fails and the department has to come up with tests on a shoestring budget, he said, that could cause problems ensuring the scoring, security and other issues needed to link exam results to public school letter grades and a host of other accountability measures.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, a Common Core backer and key proponent of the law that established letter grades for public schools, said keeping Louisiana’s accountability system intact is needed “to judge the success or failure of teachers, schools, districts and so forth.”

“I think it is extraordinarily important that we have an assessment that allows us to compare what Louisiana kids are doing, apples to apples, with those in all these other states,” Appel said.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell. For more coverage of Louisiana government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.