Kansas working on new plan for accrediting schools

Kansas education officials are preparing for what could be the biggest change in the way public schools are regulated in more than 20 years.

For students and parents, the changes may be barely noticeable at first. But officials working on the project say it will give the public a better picture of how their schools are performing, and lead to more meaningful improvements in the future.

Perhaps the most noticeable change would be that Kansas no longer accredits individual schools, but instead would apply a new set of standards to districts as a whole, something that has never been done in Kansas, at least in modern times.

“What we want to do is accredit a system, as opposed to individual silos,” said Deputy Education Commissioner Brad Neuenswander, who is leading the project. “What does a district look like that supports all buildings? Because we have some districts that have high-performing buildings and low-performing ones, so where’s the kink in the system?”

Outcomes-based education

In 1992, responding to nationwide concerns about high school graduates who lacked basic reading, writing and math skills, Kansas adopted a system known as Quality Performance Accreditation, commonly known as QPA.

It was part of a national movement toward “outcomes-based education,” the idea of holding schools accountable for what they produce in terms of student achievement.

Since then, schools have been reviewed and graded each year according to various “quality” measures, such as having all teachers certified in the areas they teach, as well as “performance” measures, most notably student scores on standardized tests.

In 2001, Congress took that a step further by passing No Child Left Behind, a law that imposed outcomes-based standards, known as Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP, as a condition of receiving federal education funding.

“The problem with AYP is, we looked at how you were doing in one year,” Neuenswander said. “And under that old system, we could rank (schools) and say which ones rank lower or higher or whatever. But the problem in looking at it that way is you only capture how they did in one year.”

A new accreditation model

The push for a new accreditation model began about two years ago when Kansas received a waiver from NCLB. Now schools no longer have to meet AYP targets for the percentage of students scoring proficient or better in reading and math. Instead, they are graded on multiple factors, including “student growth,” measuring how effectively schools are moving all students from lower to higher levels of achievement.

Neuenswander said the difference between the two is most dramatically seen in places like Kansas City, Kan., a district with one of the state’s highest poverty rates, where many schools consistently failed to meet yearly AYP targets.

“One of their elementary schools has been listed on improvement under the old accreditation for years,” he said. “But under the new model (measuring how much improvement was made year-to-year) they were one of our reward schools.”

The new system would based on the same concept, Neuenswander said, using multiple measures of outcomes. But it would focus on districts as a whole, giving them and the communities around them more flexibility to decide where they want to concentrate efforts toward improvement, and give them more time in which to make those improvements.

Specifically, the plan under development would focus on what state officials call the “five R’s”: Results in terms of student achievement; Rigor of the curriculum; Relevance of the curriculum to the state’s standards; Relationships between staff, students families and communities; and a Responsive culture that nurtures and develops every student.

Rick Ginsburg, dean of Kansas University’s School of Education, said the new model would be similar to what is commonly used in higher education. He called it the “rising tide” theory, meaning that good things happening in one or two buildings in a district can be used to lift up the whole system.

“I think the idea is to look at this as more of a systems approach,” he said. “The idea is that buildings in a district can benefit from what’s going on in pockets of a district.”