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Manchester school cash is at stake with Common Core test

New Hampshire Union Leader

September 11. 2013 11:51PM

MANCHESTER — Mayor Ted Gatsas is raising concerns that the state could withhold $56 million in education aid if city schools do not adopt the Common Core assessment test.

Gatsas said he was recently told by the state education commissioner that not adopting the assessment test, called Smarter Balanced, could imperil not only $21 million in federal funding, but the $56 million in state aid to the district, which makes up about a third of its budget.

Gatsas said both he and the former superintendent, Thomas Brennan, who stepped down in June, believed that neither state nor federal aid would be jeopardized if the district did not alter its curriculum in line with Common Core. But he said this did not appear to be the case with the test.

“I can only tell you my understanding. When people play semantics, I get upset,” Gatsas said.

Gatsas expressed his alarm at the Board of School Committee meeting on Monday, and several board members shared his concern. Federally-mandated testing has been a sore point for Gatsas, who has sought a testing exemption for the districts’s English language learners, who struggle on the NECAP exam and bring down the city’s average scores. Federal authorities have refused to grant the waiver and threatened to withhold about $20 million it sends to the district if the testing isn’t administered to all students.

Deputy State Education Commissioner Paul Leather maintained that there is already a mandated statewide education test — the NECAP — and the Common Core would simply replace it.

Leather said he wasn’t sure if state aid to districts could be withheld if they do not adopt the new assessment test. “We’d have to take look at that. I don’t have the answer to that today,” he said.

The Smarter Balanced is scheduled to first be administered in the spring of 2015. In the meantime, districts across the state are being urged to align their curriculums to the new test’s benchmarks.

The Common Core standards have drawn critics across the country who question the soundness and rigor of the system and have charged that it’s an attempt by the federal government to impose uniform and inflexible standards across the country.

On Tuesday, Sept. 17, the Americans for Prosperity Foundation will host a forum at St. Anselm’s Institute of Politics on Common Core and its implications for students and parents in New Hampshire. The forum will feature several prominent critics of the standards, including Sandra Stotsky, a former professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas. The event begins at 7 p.m.

Several opponents of Common Core have spoken out at recent meetings of the Manchester school board, which is in the process of rapidly reviewing changes to its curriculum spurred by the new standards. The board’s Curriculum and Instruction Committee allowed the administration to move forward with changes to the curriculum this semester that were devised over the summer by a group of teachers overseen by a Common Core consultant.

The pace of the changes appear to have caught the school board off guard, and the committee plans to more closely examine the proposed changes at a meeting on Monday.

The standards were defended at Monday’s board meeting by David Ryan, the district’s new assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. Ryan was previously the principal of Nashua High School North, which has implemented Common Core, he said.

Ryan compared the new test to the MCAS, the Massachusetts exam that has been credited with boosting student performance in the state. “In the short version, we have standards available ... to get students to that level,” he said.

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