The Kansas State Board of Education is all for letting one of its school districts opt out of the No Child Left Behind testing standards, in favor of ones based on national ACT exams they consider better for preparing students for college and careers.
The latest results from state assessments for schools in the Lawrence school district are set to be discussed Aug. 9 by members of the Lawrence school board.
Such information is used to guide decisions about finances, personnel and other issues, said Diane DeBacker, interim Kansas education commissioner. Results in schools’ Adequate Yearly Progress reports are important for many people across the state, including those deciding where they want to live within particular communities.
“They may not know what the ‘A’ or the ‘Y’ or the ‘P’ stand for, but they know it is really the schools’ report card,” DeBacker said. “It’s a big deal.”
Soon it’ll be up to the federal government to decide whether that’s OK.
The McPherson school district is preparing to ask the U.S. Department of Education for a waiver from the pervasive No Child Left Behind requirements, ones that have forced school districts across Kansas and the country to assess their students using standardized tests in reading, math and other basic subjects.
While other states and districts have sought and received exemptions to certain aspects of the federal legislation, never before has a Kansas district pushed to choose its own standards. And failing to comply with standards can cost states and districts federal money for education.
In case anyone’s wondering what’s at stake: Kansas schools received $413.6 million from Washington in 2008-09, enough to cover 7.3 percent of the state’s education bills.
“It’s a big deal in that they’re willing to blaze a new path,” said Diane DeBacker, the state’s interim education commissioner, regarding McPherson’s efforts. “Other school districts are looking now and saying, ‘If McPherson can do it, maybe we can.’
“What everybody else is doing in a traditional manner, they’re taking a more innovative approach. They’re sticking their necks out there, and everybody else is waiting to see what happens.”
In Lawrence, educators and administrators are following the McPherson district’s drive to transition to the ACT model.
Rick Doll, superintendent of Lawrence public schools, admits being frustrated with the limits imposed by No Child Left Behind — especially when it comes to the inevitable “narrowing” of curriculum, moves designed to give students the best chances of scoring well on the annual tests.
But the Obama administration will be expected to revise the federal legislation next year, and those changes could offer a more effective and lasting solution than simply “switching tests,” Doll said. Students, for example, could be tested once in the beginning of the school year and again at the end, to show what they’ve learned and where they’re headed.
“I think it’s interesting what McPherson’s doing, but basically what they’re doing is just substituting the ACT for the Kansas assessment test,” said Doll, who once worked as an assistant superintendent in the McPherson district. “I’d like to move to a growth model, so we change the paradigm of testing so that it’s not a one-point-in-time test. It should be an assessment model that shows growth, or lack of growth.”
The McPherson district’s plan — known as “Citizenship, College and Career Ready,” or C3 — came together during the past year. The district has 2,400 students north of Hutchinson in south central Kansas.
Teachers, administrators, business leaders and others in the district agreed that they wanted their students to graduate with an ability to succeed in college and in their chosen careers.
That would mean finding a different way to assess success, said Randy Watson, superintendent of McPherson public schools. The evidence: While McPherson eighth-graders last year achieved the highest standard on state reading assessments that comply with No Child Left Behind, only 43 percent of those same students qualified as on track to be “ready for college” as determined by the reading portion of the ACT Explore test.
Acing a state assessment test shouldn’t be the goal, Watson said. Succeeding in college or a career should be.
“We’re working really hard, but we’re working in the wrong place,” Watson said. “We’re in the forest, chopping down trees, but we’re in the wrong forest. We’re over here measuring (standards for state assessments), but it’s not something that leads to anything.
“We’re looking for a higher standard.”
The district took its plan to Topeka, and on June 8 presented it to the Kansas State Board of Education.
Board members listened intently to the process, methods and goals of the program, and offered their personal and professional support. While members did not take a formal vote, DeBacker said, they did indicate a willingness to adjust accreditation rules in support of the plan.
They also would assist the district in seeking approval in Washington.
“If there’s anytime there’s a likelihood this could happen, it’s now,” DeBacker said.
McPherson officials plan to send in their application sometime this fall. The district already will be paying to have its older students take various ACT tests this fall; the hope is that students in grades 6 through 12 won’t need to take state assessments come spring.
DeBacker will be waiting to see whether her department might be able to build off the McPherson district’s plan.
“We know, under the (Obama) reauthorization, we will have another way of measuring student success,” DeBacker said. “If this works, why not take this approach across the state?”