COLUMBIA - Superintendent of Education Mick Zais told the state Education Oversight Committee withdrawing South Carolina from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium doesn't mean the state can't use the test.

The discussion took place on Monday during the committee's meeting. Zais updated members on his decision to withdraw South Carolina, a move that left education officials and advocates frustrated and confused.

"Being a member of the consortium is different than using Smarter Balanced tests," Zais said. "Being a member of the consortium just means that you get to participate in the test development process. We're not a member of the Smarter Balanced consortium today, but that does not mean that we are precluded from using the Smarter Balanced test."

That's accurate, but Zais has said he wants to go the open procurement route. As explained in his letter to the chairman of the State Board of Education earlier this month, Zais said he would open up the field for request for proposals from companies wishing to offer their exams.

Smarter Balanced, however, cannot respond to requests for proposals, because they operate under a federal grant that keeps them from using federal money to support operational activities, said Jacqueline King, spokeswoman for Smarter Balanced. There are 21 states that are part of the consortium; Pennsylvania is an advisory member and the U.S. Virgin Islands are an affiliate member.

"We also have practical constraints because we have a very small staff," King added. "And we would be taking time away from service from all of the states in order to respond to a single-state RFP."

South Carolina's students, however, could still see a Smarter Balanced-influenced test. Whoever wins the request for proposal could ask Smarter Balanced for some of its test elements - such as test questions or the design of the test - to create a new assessment for South Carolina, King said.

Smarter Balanced tests measure the effectiveness of Common Core standards. Both have come under fire in a number of states, including South Carolina, as a way to nationalize education, and standardize curriculum at the state level. Legislators, educators and political candidates are coming down on both sides of the issue.

Common Core standards define what students in all grades must learn in reading and math. Because what students are learning will be changing, the state needs new standardized exams to evaluate them, which is where Smarter Balanced's tests came in.

Meanwhile, the time to choose a new test is running tight. One of Zais' staffers told the committee that bids by companies wishing to make South Carolina's tests would likely return "at best" in early July.

South Carolina's students were scheduled to be tested with Smarter Balanced assessments during the 2014-15 school year. Trial testing started last month. The Common Core standards are currently being taught and are due to be fully enacted next year.

The state also requested a waiver from No Child Left Behind requirements. If South Carolina doesn't have a test that meets federal standards in time for next year, the state wouldn't meet the requirements of the waiver, which could jeopardize $214 million in federal Title I money allocated for schools with a high percentage of low-income children.

But Zais said the department of education could go before the U.S. Dept. of Education to discuss the matter.

"There are other states who are in transition," Zais said. "We are not the only state facing these dilemmas."

Cynthia Roldan can be reached at 708-5891.