While the State Board of Education retreated on testing waivers and making changes to parent consent to a health survey this week, members also waded into new area of assessment and accountability flexibility and data privacy. They also failed to find common ground on graduation requirements.

Here’s a look at what we learned on Wednesday and Thursday:

🔗1. The board is in favor of experimenting with new accountability systems but there are plenty of ‘buts’ to work through.

Several conversations on Wednesday and Thursday gravitated toward testing and accountability, even if the official agenda item had nothing to do with the topic.

However, two presentations on Thursday centered specifically on these issues.

First, a coalition of rural school districts presented an alternative to the state’s accountability system, which relies heavily on data from standardized tests. Here is that group’s presentation. Every board member voiced his or her support for the work the group had done, and encouraged the coalition to work closely with the board and state department to identify and remove any sort of bureaucratic barriers that would stop implementation.

However, board member Angelika Schroeder warned of deviating too far from the state’s model.

“Schools are different, kids are different, but we also need comparability,” she said.

Her fear is that holding small and rural districts accountable to a different system than larger urban districts would raise questions  about whether rural students are receiving an education  “as good as” their urban counterparts.

Elliott Asp, special assistant to the commissioner, also presented an overview of what a new assessment system blending state assessments like the PARCC test and local assessments could look like.

The pilot would be made possible by the testing bill approved by the General Assembly earlier this month. It would require the U.S. Department of Education’s stamp of approval. But the system Asp pitched, which is far from being fully fleshed out, relies heavily on work done in New Hampshire.

That state’s flexible assessment system was approved by the feds, but only after a few years of double-assessing students.

Board member Debora Scheffel, a Republican, warned there is no appetite for more tests.

“In some ways [it looks like] we’ve created a lot more work and we have not uncoupled from PARCC,” she said. “I want to make sure we’re not asking for more [assessments].”

🔗2. On data privacy, board members want to act now.

A data privacy bill failed to make it through the legislature. But state board members want to take matters into their own hands and update contract language with vendors that reflect the most agreed upon apsects of the privacy bill.

“I believe we can accomplish by contract virtually everything that was in legislation and could set that as a model for school districts,” said board member Steve Durham, a Republican

🔗3. The state’s accountability clock is in limbo after a testing bill is passed.

During a lengthy discussion on the testing bill passed by the General Assembly between the board and its lobbyist, Scheffel asked what the bill meant for those schools and school districts on the state’s accountability watch list.

Schools and districts that fall below state expectations have five years to improve or face sanctions.

Keith Owen, deputy commissioner, told the board his team was still reviewing what the bill meant for those schools. On first read, however, Owen said some academically-struggling schools might get an extra year to improve before the state can step in. However, he said, the final word on how the education department plans to proceed would likely come later this month.

🔗4. Schools and districts with high opt-out numbers will likely face federal, but not state, sanctions.

We already told you that the federal government is not interested in holding harmless those schools and districts that failed to meet the 95 percent testing requirement.

However, CDE staff told the board there could be a compromise under which schools that saw a large number of student skip state standardized tests face federal sanctions but get to keep their state accountability rating.

Under federal law, schools that don’t meet the 95 percent testing level could be required to send home letters that label the school as failing, could lose some federal funds, or be required to use those dollars for certain programs like tutoring.

Under state law, if a school does not meet the testing threshold it could be earn a lower accreditation rating — even if the students who take the test do well.

🔗5. The board will hire a search firm to find the state’s next education commissioner.

Board members agreed Thursday to put the logistical portions of finding the next education chief in the hands of a search firm.

“We don’t have anyone to manage the process,” said chairwoman Marcia Neal “And we need someone to do that.”

The board also agreed to zero in on and likely appoint an interim commissioner at its June meeting. All board members said it’s urgent to find a person to replace education Commissioner Robert Hammond, who announced his retirement in April.

Hammond’s last day is June 24.

🔗6. The split among the board is as wide as ever and Marcia Neal is not happy.

Despite retreating on several controversial topics (like the cut scores and the health survey) the board is still divided primarily along philosophical differences about what its role is.

“We’re a regulatory agency,” said vice chair Schroder who has mostly aligned herself with fellow Democrat Jane Goff and chairwoman Neal, a moderate Republican. Her comments came during a break after a heated conversation about graduation requirements during which board member Durham made a motion to strip the state of any graduation guidelines.

He eventually dropped his motion after members agreed to table the discussion. The board is required to adopt new graduation guidelines under state law.

Other board members volleyed back and forth during breaks about their actions and reputation.

Several times, Neal shared her frustration about the board’s behavior Wednesday and Thursday. At one point Thursday she said she had never had a more frustrating two days in her six years on the state board. Most of her frustration was pointed toward Durham. Neal accused him of trying to unravel six years of education reform policy.

“You seem to blame this on staff,” Neal said. “Staff is doing what they’re legally bound to do. Obviously you want to take that apart. You very well might be able to do that. … But you can’t take it all apart in a couple of weeks.”