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Gov. Scott Walker Rebrands Common Core

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Scott Walker’s Smarter Balanced Deception

By Jeffrey Horn

If you have been following Common Core in Wisconsin, you know that the fight to repeal Common Core has been a roller coaster ride.  Repeatedly, Governor Walker has indicated that he appreciates legitimate objections to Common Core, giving people in his state hope that he would move to repeal and replace the standards. However, such intimations have turned out to be hollow.  This article lays out proof that:

  • Scott Walker understands that assessments aligned with Common Core are problematic in that they make it very difficult for local districts to choose alternative standards.
  • Scott Walker is moving forward with a school and teacher accountability system that relies heavily on high stakes testing using a new Badger Exam which replaces the Smarter Balanced Assessment.
  • Under Scott Walker, the state is provisioning a new Badger Exam that is to test proficiency against the Common Core standards.

In short, Scott Walker’s actions on Common Core entrench Common Core in Wisconsin and do not match his rhetoric.

It’s worth reviewing some specific comments that Walker has made concerning Common Core:

September 25, 2013 (Wisconsin State Journal): “I’d like to have Wisconsin have its own unique standards that I think can be higher than what’s been established and what’s been talked about at the national level.

July 17, 2014 (Press Release):“Today, I call on the members of the state Legislature to pass a bill in early January to repeal Common Core and replace it with standards set by people in Wisconsin.

July 18, 2014 (La Crosse Tribune/Associated Press): “Whatever is adopted may not differ significantly from Common Core standards.  It’s one of those where they’ll have to adjust some things, some of the things may very well parallel, other things will be different.

December 18, 2014 (The Blaze): “[My goal is to] remove any mandate that requires a school district to abide by Common Core standards.”

January 17, 2015 (WLUK FOX 11 Green Bay/Appleton): “I also want [the legislature] to make it perfectly clear in the statutes that school districts do not have to use [C]ommon [C]ore, and that we take it a step further and we work with the legislature making sure there aren’t things like the Smarter Balanced test going forward that require the schools to use a test that’s based on the Common Core.” [N.B. The article accompanying the video coverage of this story incorrectly transcribes Governor Walker’s statement.  We have corrected the transcription error in the quote above.]

It is clear from just this handful of statements that Walker has vacillated between repealing Common Core, replacing Common Core with better “Wisconsin Standards,” rebranding Common Core as “Wisconsin Standards,” and leaving the decision about Common Core completely up to local school districts.  Its also clear from the last statement that Governor Walker is aware that requiring school districts to use a test based on Common Core is a problem.

The Long Road to Nowhere

The Wisconsin State Legislature held its first informational hearing on the Common Core standards on May 22, 2013—a hearing, incidentally, at which no public comment was permitted.  During the following year and a half, Scott Walker’s position on the issue was, at best, vague and evolving.  The governor has gained a national reputation for bold stands on issues.  Certainly, once he takes a firm stand, Walker has demonstrated his ability to garner strong legislative support that will move the bills he wants to his desk for signature.

It is worth noting, then, that Walker made no such effort to secure anti-Common Core legislation. In fact, one could make precisely the opposite case. It isn’t just that no repeal legislation has been enacted. Any legislative language that could have made a difference was quashed, never making it through committee. It is difficult to believe that the governor didn’t prefer this lack of movement, particularly since investigation by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has revealed that in early 2014 the governor’s office had a direct hand in ensuring that a repeal bill known to have been crafted by a State Senator was re-drafted and ultimately introduced as a far less powerful standards review bill.

What’s more, when a series of four public hearings to investigate and take public comment on Common Core was finally held in Wisconsin in October 2013, the results were negligible. Absolutely nothing was done to stop Common Core in Wisconsin.  In fact, the one item that Walker assiduously pushed for after being re-elected in November 2014 was school accountability. The language of bills introduced in the Assembly and Senate respectively both arguably worked to entrench Common Core and high-stakes testing in Wisconsin, at least to the extent that Common Core-aligned assessments, such as Smarter Balanced assessments are used as the accountability measure.

Keeping “Everybody” Happy

What’s going on here?

It’s actually not so difficult to solve the puzzle.

Key organizations, such as Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC, the state’s Chamber of Commerce), have publicly endorsed Common Core. A major campaign backer of Governor Walker and other Republicans in state leadership, WMC has significant clout at the State Capitol. This reality goes a long way toward providing a reasonable—though not necessarily excusable—explanation of Walker’s continued fence-riding and inaction on Common Core.  Governor Walker is undoubtedly caught between major corporate donors who favor Common Core and a conservative base that overwhelmingly opposes it.  However, it is hard to avoid the reality that, to date, Walker’s actions (or lack thereof), have best suited the wishes of the big donors.

Let’s Pretend with the Budget

The most recent examples of this reality are tied to language in the governor’s proposed 2015-2017 biennial state budget, which he submitted on February 3, 2015.  In fact, when, in an interview with a major media figure on April 20th, Scott Walker was directly asked if he would sign a repeal of Common Core if it came to his desk, the governor replied that he would “absolutely repeal Common Core in Wisconsin.”  To drive the point home, he added: “Absolutely.  I proposed it in my budget.” 

Ostensibly, the budget does finally seem to do something substantive to remove Common Core in Wisconsin.  It includes a proposal to defund the Common Core-aligned Smarter Balanced assessments and pull Wisconsin out of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC). Moreover, it states that “the state superintendent may not give effect to any academic standard developed by the Common Core State Standards Initiative.”

But for those paying close attention to the issue, the budget also contained indications that Common Core was not actually on its way out. The language related to defunding of SBAC, for example, contained no prohibitions against choosing other Common Core-aligned assessments. Nor were any funds designated for the development of new standards to replace the Common Core standards, which currently remain Wisconsin’s official state standards for English Language Arts and mathematics.

Moreover, significant tracts of language from a standalone accountability bill, which had been offered in the Assembly in early January at the governor’s urging, had been cut and pasted into the budget. With no guarantee that the next assessments selected would not be Common Core aligned, activists in the state were suspicious that a powerful enforcement mechanism for the standards would remain in place.

Accountability: The Key to the Game

And herein we come to another important point.

For some time now, Governor Walker’s principal means of dealing with the base on Common Core has been to say that in a local control state, local districts can do what they like. Technically, the governor is correct: Local districts have the right to set their own standards in Wisconsin. Yet, this right doesn’t play out practically. Measures already in place in the state hold teachers, schools, and districts accountable for student scores on state-mandated standardized assessments by issuing district and school “report cards.”  Efforts to implement a sanctions process on schools and districts that don’t measure up on assessments have been a priority for the Governor.  Such sanctions were the subject of the very first bills offered in the 2015 legislative session: AB1 and SB1.  Due to immense public opposition from both the left and the right, neither bill has made it to a floor vote.  However, on June 18, 2015, Representative Robert Brooks stated at the Ozaukee County Pints and Politics that an accountability bill was likely forthcoming in an attempt to pick up aspects of earlier-proposed accountability bills that had not already been inserted into the budget.  The pieces of previous accountability bills not inserted into the budget would almost certainly be a sanctions process for schools that don’t measure up on standardized assessments.  AB1, for example, contains a sanctions process up to and including state takeover of “underperforming” schools.

Schools and districts would/do, then, face a choice: Either move away from the standards and take a huge risk of doing poorly on the mandated assessments or teach to the test in order better to ensure the kinds of assessment scores the state wants to see.  If the state standardized test is Common Core-aligned, the strong incentive is to teach to Common Core standards.  Only if the state standardized assessments were unpegged from Common Core and/or aligned to different standards would most schools feel the freedom to move away from Common Core. There is a reason that only one school district in the state has thus far taken the riskier road.

It is in relationship to this very point that, regrettably, the budgetary language has turned out to be an elaborate sleight of hand—the governor’s greatest ploy yet to make the base believe that he’s actually attempting to do something about Common Core. It’s so good, in fact, that even most legislators seem to have fallen for it.

Down the Request-for-Bid Rabbit Hole

As soon as the budget was submitted, word began to come back from legislative offices that a new Badger Exam would be commissioned to replace the Common Core-aligned Smarter Balanced assessment.  That made sense.  Given the Governor’s inclusion of test-based accountability in his budget, some statewide, standardized test would be needed.  However, rumblings out of legislative offices made it clear that this “new” Badger exam would also be Common Core-aligned and that an imminent Request for Bids for the new Badger exam would contain details and verification.

Finally, on April 23, 2015, the Wisconsin Department of Administration announced a Request for Bid for a new Badger Exam in English Language Arts, Math and Science.  Curiously, the proposal document only referred to “Wisconsin Standards”, leaving vendors to guess as to what, precisely, they would be writing exams to assess.

Clearly needing more information, vendors asked the Department of Administration for clarification in two rounds of formal question and answer.

On May 19, 2015, in DPI’s responses to the first round of questions, some helpful information was finally provided:

Question #53:  Standards- Are the WI Standards mentioned in the RFP different from the WI Model Academic Standards?
Answer #53: These are the WI State Standards available in the DPI webpage. This is the same for Science as the Model Academic standards, but different for ELA and math.

Though this answer was a little better than just referring to “Wisconsin Standards”, it remained unclear whether these standards were in fact the Common Core standards adopted by Wisconsin on June 2, 2010 or something else.  On May 20, 2015, we asked the Department of Administration to include in the second round of Q&A a question that would spell out in detail exactly what standards the new Badger Exam would be written to assess.

On June 5, 2015, DPI’s answers to the second round of questions were released with the following reply to our question:

Question #1:  Could you point to the actual place (a url) on the DPI website where the “WI State Standards” for ELA, Math, and Science are listed? Could you perhaps also show where the “Model Academic Standards” are listed so that we can determine the difference?
Answer #1:
ELA Standards http://ela.dpi.wi.gov/english-language-arts-standards.
Math Standards http://math.dpi.wi.gov/mathematics-standards-page.
Science Standards http://standards.dpi.wi.gov/stn_sciintro.

This response should be troubling to anyone opposed to Common Core—for more than one reason.

The ELA Standards page cited by DPI automatically redirects to a page: http://dpi.wi.gov/ela:

ELA-P1-With-Arrow

This page does not contain detailed Wisconsin standards, but instead contains a second link [see blue arrow in graphic above] to an ELA standards page: http://dpi.wi.gov/ela/standards:

ELA-P2-With-Arrow

This page also does not include detailed standards, but it does contain the following text [pointed at by the blue arrow in the graphic above]:

To access a copy of the WI State Standards in English Language Arts, please view the attached document WI State Standards on ELA.

It is only by following an automatic redirect and clicking on this third link that the standards themselves are actually revealed. And what do they turn out to be? [drum roll please…] CCSS-Rebranded-For-WI

The Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts, branded for Wisconsin.

Similarly, the Math Standards page cited by DPI automatically redirects to a page: http://dpi.wi.gov/math

This page does not contain detailed Wisconsin standards, but instead contains a second link [see blue arrow in graphic above] to an mathematics standards page: http://dpi.wi.gov/math/standards

This page also does not include detailed standards, but it does contain the following text [pointed at by the blue arrow in the graphic above]:

The Wisconsin State Standards in Mathematics and additional resources on the standards are on the DPI Common Core homepage.

As with ELAs, it is only by following an automatic redirect and clicking on this third link that the standards themselves are actually revealed. And what do they turn out to be? [drum roll please…]

You guessed it… The Common Core State Standards for Mathematics, branded for Wisconsin.

Note that the DPI webpage says “additional resources on the standards are on the DPI Common Core Home Page.“  Note also that that link goes to http://.dpi.wi.gov/common-core (sic) a page that does not load.  However a page without the leading period http://dpi.wi.gov/common-core does still exist on the DPI website, indicating that, contrary to the language in the budget stating that “no effect shall be given to Common Core standards“, said standards are still alive and well in the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction:

Not only, then, is it clear that the new assessments being sought to replace SBAC in Wisconsin will likewise be Common Core-aligned, just as legislative sources hinted shortly after the governor submitted his budget; but it’s clear an effort is being made to at least make it cumbersome to get at that truth.

Keeping up Appearances

Just days after we obtained this confirmation that Wisconsin would be entrenching Common Core in our State with a new Common Core-aligned Badger Exam, Scott Walker was quoted in the press, saying: “Nationwide, we want high standards but we want them set by parents, educators and school board members at the local level. That is why I oppose Common Core.

Scott Walker means for us to believe that, because he is removing the Smarter Balanced assessments via the budget that Common Core will have no effect in Wisconsin.  That’s what his budget says and that’s what he has been saying repeatedly on the presidential campaign trail.  He is clear that Common Core aligned assessments tie school districts’ hands and force them to adopt Common core from his quote on January 17, 2015: “We take it a step further and we work with the legislature making sure there aren’t things like the Smarter Balanced test going forward that require the schools to use a test that’s based on the Common Core.“  Yet, he is simultaneously pushing an accountability scheme that includes the commissioning of a new Badger Exam that assesses performance based on the Common Core standards, thereby further entrenching  Common Core in Wisconsin.

In addition, Scott Walker states that language in his budget gives school districts the right to set their own standards, different from Common Core.  Governor Walker’s statement is disingenuous in at least two ways.

  • First, Wisconsin school districts have had the right to set their own standards since at least 1998, so the Walker budget doesn’t actually grant them any new authority.
  • Second, since the new Badger Exam will be aligned to and measure performance against the Common Core, the Walker accountability scheme thoroughly undercuts any real ability for a school district to move away from Common Core in a meaningful way.   The Walker budget actually ensures that Common Core standards will dominate the Wisconsin educational landscape for years to come.

Cutting to the Chase

Scott Walker can only be seen as saying one thing and doing something quite different.  But he’s nothing if not a consummate politician.  In his run for the presidency, these cunning but deeply misleading moves will likely garner him big support from major corporate interests and the Chamber of Commerce.

The truth is that, despite the pretty language in Governor Walker’s proposed budget, saying that Common Core will have no effect in Wisconsin, Common Core will indeed continue to have an effect in this state. The effect is that the new Badger Exam will assess students’ proficiency against the Common Core standards; that our districts, schools, and teachers will be held accountable to Common Core; and that Wisconsin’s future will be shaped by the standardization and centralized control that Common Core represents and perpetuates.

Scott Walker is playing with our children’s futures for his own political gain. Eventually his maneuvering is going to catch up with him.  If he is to maintain any respect either in Wisconsin or on the presidential campaign trail, he must choose another path, and he must choose it quickly.

What will it be, Governor?  Now is the time to choose.

What will it be, Governor?  Now is the time to choose.