July 24, 2013 10:50:41 AM
JACKSON -- A group of state senators is questioning Mississippi's implementation of the Common Core education standards even as the state's schools move to put those standards into place this fall.
Sen. Angela Hill, R-Picayune, said Mississippi's decision to set different testing goals for different racial subgroups undermines the state's adoption of the standards, along with 44 other states. Hill wants to freeze Mississippi's work on Common Core, if not reverse it.
Nationally, some conservative Republicans have mounted a fierce attack on Common Core, saying it sets the stage for a federal takeover of education. Until now, though, there's been relatively little debate among Mississippi lawmakers.
Lawmakers opposed to Common Core have been marshaling their arguments in recent weeks, apparently girding for a legislative challenge next year.
State officials say Hill and others have incorrectly mashed together Mississippi's waiver from the No Child Left Behind federal education law and the decision to adopt the standards. They also deny different testing goals equal lower standards for some children, saying the goals are meant to set realistic targets to cut underperformance in half over a few years.
"We don't set a lower standard," said Patrice Guilfoyle, spokeswoman for the Mississippi Department of Education. "The reality is children are at different levels."
Hill and other members of the state Senate's conservative coalition disagree, noting that both the targets and Common Core were mentioned in Mississippi's waiver application to the federal government.
"It's a package deal," Hill said.
The coalition is a group of 11 Republican senators who say they've banded together to study issues. They are generally more distant from Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves than other GOP senators.
Hill said different targets for different groups of students by race or special education status is a backward step, and is possibly even discriminatory.
"It invalidates the theory that Common Core espouses, that Common Core is going to bring a child to the level of proficiency," Hill said.
No Child Left Behind, passed in 2002, set a goal for every child to become proficient in tested subjects by the end of the coming school year. No state is expected to meet that goal, and Mississippi had among the lowest scores in the nation in the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress. The waiver process frees states from NCLB's requirements. Mississippi instead is focusing on improving attainment among the lowest-scoring students. The targets for different groups are meant to spur faster improvement.
"It's designed to cut the achievement gap in half," said Daren Briscoe, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education. "This doesn't attach to individual students at all. It basically allows, on the front end, that every student group isn't starting from the same place."
Briscoe said Common Core "continues to be a state-led effort." His boss, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, defended the standards last month.
"Now, I don't think the Common Core is going to get derailed," he told news editors meeting in Washington, D.C., in a June 25 speech. "But this misguided, misinformed opposition is making life more difficult in several states, where various forms of anti-Common Core legislation have been introduced. A lot of that legislation is based on false information."
Hill, for example, wants Mississippi to pull out of a multi-state effort to develop Common Core based tests, as Oklahoma and Georgia have done. She also wants a bill like one passed in Indiana, which "pauses" implementation for public hearings. However, Mississippi appears to be further along than Indiana. There, only kindergartners and first graders are being taught a curriculum based on Common Core. In Mississippi, starting next month, all 490,000 public school students are supposed to be taught based on Common Core.
Senate Education Chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, said in a Tuesday phone interview that he's willing to listen to any senator's concerns, but remains a supporter of the standards.
"In terms of completely ditching the Common Core, unless there's something very, very dramatic, I don't think that's good for the state," he said.
Tollison said he agrees with other supporters who say Common Core will help upgrade Mississippi's lagging academic performance.
"I feel like the standards are raising expectations, especially in Mississippi," Tollison said.
Republican Gov. Phil Bryant also remains a solid supporter, spokesman Mick Bullock said.
"I am not familiar with these particular claims but Governor Bryant supports higher standards for our students and is closely monitoring these College and Career Readiness Standards in making sure they are in line with Mississippi's educational values," Bullock wrote in a Monday email.