As the debate about Common Core carries on, many interested parties are making claims about what effect the new standards will have on public education and children in Utah. The latest comes from Brenda Hales of the Utah State Office of Education (USOE) and a response by Christel Swasey, a public-school teacher in Utah.
After several months of research, Sutherland Institute published a report recommending the state exit Common Core and agreements related to it. In this blog post, we have rated how true or false the USOE claims are, and explain our ratings based on our research. All page numbers refer to our full report, and we made format changes to USOE quotes to maintain consistency.
USOE: “Personally identifiable student data has never been shared with or requested by the federal government. Utah retains control over student data. While there have been some recent revisions to FERPA regulations, the law still clearly states who has access to information and under what circumstances. Still in all cases the law is ‘permissive’ not ‘obligatory’; that is, Utah may share the data but it is never obliged to share it. Utah won’t share the data without compelling reasons and then only within the strictest confines of federal law.”
Rating: Likely true – with caution.
The key phrase here is “personally identifiable student data.” Utah must give education data to the federal government as a participant in programs like NCLB and IDEA, but this data is reported on the state, district or school level, not the individual student level. However, the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), of which Utah is a member, has agreed to work with the U.S. Department of Education to “develop a strategy to make student-level data that results from the assessment system available on an ongoing basis for research, including for prospective linking, validity, and program improvement studies, subject to applicable privacy laws” (pg. 10). So while Utah is not currently obligated to share personal student-level data with the federal government, the state may be pressured or required to do so in the future as a participant in SBAC (Utah has agreed to support any decision SBAC makes [pg. 10]). We urge USOE never to share personally identifiable data with the federal government. No “compelling reasons” exist to do so.
USOE: “The State Board of Education has control over the standards and assessments for Utah. The State Board can and will change them as needed without outside group or federal approval. The State Board is solely responsible for overseeing the implementation of the standards in our state.”
Rating: False, except the final sentence.
Utah has entered three agreements that limit control over its standards and assessments. First, its agreement with the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and the National Governors Association (NGA) requires it to adopt Common Core standards in their entirety. The state has the option of adding up to 15 percent additional content but cannot subtract from or change the standards if it wants to retain its status as a participant in Common Core. To change its current core standards for language arts and mathematics, Utah would either have to convince the consortium to change the standards for all participating states or else exit its agreement with the consortium (pg. 8).
Second and third, Utah has agreed to adopt Common Core standards and SBAC’s computer adaptive assessments as part of its federally approved flexibility waiver for NCLB and its membership in SBAC. Thus, even if it ended its agreement with CCSSO and NGA, it would still be bound to participate in Common Core and SBAC assessments. To stop using these standards or assessments, the state would have to exit its agreement with SBAC, which requires federal approval, and either give up its NCLB flexibility waiver or receive approval from the Department of Education to use its own set of standards and assessments in order to maintain the waiver (this was an original option but any change would need federal approval) (pgs. 8-11). In summary, Utah can add up to 15 percent to its standards, but it cannot change them otherwise without approval from CCSSO, NGA and the U.S. Department of Education. It also must use SBAC assessments (still being developed) unless it receives approval from the same people. USOE might claim the state has control over standards and assessments because it can always exit its agreements with these entities, but as long as it maintains these agreements the state does not have control of its standards and assessments. For this reason, we urge the state to exit these agreements and develop its own standards and assessments.
USOE: “Utah has not lost its autonomy over standards and assessments.”
USOE: “Utah reviews and updates core standards on a regular basis – typically improving and raising the bar on what Utah students need to know. The Utah core standards for Mathematics and Reading/English Language Arts were approved during the Board’s August 6 meeting. The State Board adopted them based on the quality of the standards. They were not adopted due to federal pressure, federal recommendations or federal money.”
Rating: Partially true and partially unknown.
The state does update its standards from time to time and improved its math standards not long before adopting Common Core (pgs. 2-3, 6). Whether the standards were adopted because of federal money is unknown. The timing of agreements leads one to wonder if Utah adopted the standards to qualify for Race to the Top funds, but only state officials know their true motives for adopting the standards.
USOE: “The Utah core standards may be changed by the State Board at any time.”
Rating: False, unless the state exits current agreements.
USOE: “The Utah core standards were not developed, funded or mandated by the federal government.”
Rating: Technically true.
The federal government did not develop, fund or mandate the standards, but it has encouraged the adoption of them through NCLB waivers. Utah could have chosen to develop its own improved standards superior to Common Core and still qualify for a waiver, as Minnesota and Virginia have done, but it chose to adopt Common Core standards (pg. 9). The federal government is funding SBAC assessments, which the state has signed on to use, through its Race to the Top program.
USOE: “The Utah core standards are not federal or national standards.”
Rating: Possibly true.
Common Core standards are not federal standards, despite the federal government’s encouraging all states to adopt them. Whether they are national standards depends on how one defines “national.” 45 states (90 percent) have formally adopted the standards, which means some people may consider them to be national standards, but perhaps others would want the other five states on board to call them “national standards.” In the end, what we do know is that a couple years ago each state had its own set of standards, and today 45 states have common standards.
USOE: “The Utah core standards were not obligatory because of Utah’s Race to the Top application.”
Rating: Technically true.
Utah did not have to adopt Common Core standards to apply for Race to the Top grants, but the Obama administration did give preference to states that had “demonstrated its commitment to adopting a common set of high-quality standards” by participating in a consortium that included “a significant number of states” and was “working toward jointly developing and adopting a common set of K-12 standards” (pgs. 9-10). Utah did not win a Race to the Top grant, so it is not bound to remain in Common Core through that federal program.
USOE: “The Utah core standards are not under the control or manipulation of special interest groups.”
Rating: Somewhat false.
SBAC is a group of states with a special interest in creating assessments aligned with Common Core. While SBAC is a collaboration of public entities, it is a group outside of Utah to which the state has ceded some of its autonomy over public education. As a member of SBAC, Utah has agreed in advance to adopt Common Core and to support any decisions the consortium makes. For example, if SBAC decides to require member states to add specific elements to its current math and language arts standards or to adopt common standards in other subject areas, then Utah would need to adhere to those decisions unless it exits SBAC (pg. 10). This applies especially to Utah’s assessments, as the state has agreed to use SBAC assessments when they are completed. It’s also important to remember that while NGA and CCSSO (creators of Common Core) have public officials on their boards and committees, they are private special interest groups.
USOE: “The Utah core standards are not obligatory because of Utah’s NCLB flexibility request application.”
As explained above, Utah had to choose one of two options to qualify for an NCLB flexibility request: It could adopt Common Core standards or develop its own improved standards. Utah’s adoption of Common Core qualified it for the waiver the federal government has already approved. The state is obligated to use Common Core standards unless it obtains permission from the federal government to develop its own standards and maintain its waiver, or unless the state chooses to back out of the waiver (pg. 9).
USOE: “In a letter dated March 7, 2012, Arne Duncan, the Secretary of the United States Department of Education affirmed that ‘states have the sole right to set learning standards.’ In Utah’s flexibility request we informed the Department of Education that we have chosen to use our Utah core standards. If and when the State Board decides to change or revise Utah’s standards they will do so.”
Although if the State Board wants to change or revise its standards it must take the steps described above.
USOE: “Occasionally, the Department of Education has wrongly and problematically appeared to take credit for the standards. For example, an application for a federal grant for development of assessments erroneously stated that the standards were released by the Department of Education. This has led to confusion over who wrote the core. Stephanie Shipton from the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) reaffirmed in an email to the Utah State Office of Education (USOE) on March 27, 2012, ‘The statement ‘Common Core Standards released by the Department of Education’ is factually incorrect (assuming you are referring to the U.S. Department of Education). The NGA Center and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) hold the copyright. In addition, the U.S. Department of Education played no role in the development process (including but not limited to financial contributions, input on the standards, and input on the process).’”
Rating: Probably true.
USOE: “Utah applied to receive a Race to the Top (RTTT) grant, but did not receive one. At a federal government level, the Department of Education has in the past two years issued grants that encourage the use of the Common Core, Charter Schools, Educator Evaluation systems that include accountability for student growth, performance incentives, interventions for low-performing schools and other initiatives. Utah is under no obligation associated with RTTT and does not receive any RTTT funds.”
Rating: Mostly true.
As mentioned, Utah did not win a grant through Race to the Top and does not receive any funds directly through Race to the Top, but it does have obligations through its participation in SBAC (as described above), which is funded by Race to the Top (pgs. 9-12).
USOE: “Utah is using the state procurement process to implement a new assessment system and to determine future assessment purchases. Utah participates in a consortium of states to develop assessments and a computer adaptive assessment system. The consortium called SBAC receives federal funds from a federal grant [Race to the Top]. Utah signed a document agreeing to participate in the development of the Smarter Balanced Assessment System. Utah agreed to use the assessments if the state is still an SBAC governing state in the 2014-2015 school year. Utah may withdraw from the consortium at any time through a formal exit process. To date, six states have terminated their participation in the consortium with a 1-7 day process. Utah can choose to use SBAC or reject it.”
Rating: True, with qualifications.
The state can reject SBAC and withdraw from it at any time, assuming it receives approval from SBAC and the federal government. If Utah withdraws from SBAC it would need to rework its NCLB flexibility waiver because it has agreed to use SBAC assessments in order to obtain the waiver (pg. 11).
To learn more, see “Common Core: Is It Best for Utah Children?”