Kansas schools preparing for sweeping changes in state oversight

Deputy Education Commissioner Brad Neuenswander shares with the Kansas State Board of Education new data showing the state falling far short of its needs in getting students through postsecondary education programs on July 12, 2017.

? The Kansas State Board of Education will take the first official step on Tuesday toward implementing sweeping changes in the way public schools in the state are accredited and held accountable for making sure students receive an adequate education.

During its regular monthly meeting, the 10-member board will officially receive a proposed set of new regulations that represent the first overhaul of an accreditation system that has been in place since 1992, known as Quality Performance Accreditation, or QPA.

QPA grew out of a movement that began in the 1970s and 1980s known as “outcomes-based education,” in which individual school buildings were held accountable for the academic results they produced, as measured by student scores on standardized reading and math tests.

The new Kansas Education System Accreditation, or KESA, represents a massive overhaul of that system. For one, it involves accrediting districts as a whole, not just individual buildings.

“Since 1992 we’ve always accredited buildings,” said Brad Neuenswander, the state’s deputy education commissioner for learning services. “But you can have in a school district buildings that are governor’s achievement award winners and others that are ‘on improvement.’ We just didn’t believe in the past that accrediting isolated buildings helped move things forward.”

KESA also puts districts on a five-year accreditation cycle instead of renewing accreditation every year. And it bases accreditation on a much wider set of criteria than academic test scores by taking into account such things as each student’s social and emotional growth and the level of engagement the districts have with the communities they serve.

Neuenswander said the concepts behind KESA grew out of a statewide listening tour that the State Department of Education and the State Board of Education conducted in 2015. During that tour, officials asked parents, community leaders and local businesses what they expected from their public schools.

“What Kansans clearly told us is, we need to put value back on nonacademic skills,” he said. “Things like grit, teamwork, resilience, those social-emotional character development skills.”

That shift represents a major departure from the outcomes-based education movement that brought about QPA in the first place.

That movement first came to widespread public attention during the Reagan administration in 1983 with the publication of a U.S. Department of Education report titled “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform.”

That report was highly critical of the nation’s public school system at that time, declaring that “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

The Kansas Legislature mandated the outcomes-based accreditation system known as QPA in 1992 as part of the same bill that overhauled school finance through a uniform, per-pupil funding system.

That law mandated that the State Board of Education begin writing formal academic standards in major subjects such as English language arts and math, and that it develop standardized tests for those subjects. Results of those tests would then be used to determine whether a school could be accredited.

Nine years later, in 2001, President George W. Bush signed into law a national version of that same concept, “No Child Left Behind,” which tied eligibility for federal education money to student performance on statewide reading and math exams.

It also mandated that within 10 years, states would be held accountable for 100 percent of their students scoring as proficient or better on those reading and math tests, regardless of their race, socioeconomic status or disability.

Congress has since replaced No Child Left Behind, and in many ways KESA represents Kansas’ attempt to back out of such a strict, test-driven accreditation system.

“I think we’re moving to more balance,” Neuenswander said. “Those hard data points like assessments, attendance — those things are still important. We’re not lowering the emphasis that kids be academically prepared.”

But he said the new accreditation system will emphasize more than just academics.

Formal action to approve the new regulations is expected in September. That will start a months-long process that includes review by the Kansas attorney general’s office, a legislative committee and, finally, the Kansas Rules and Regulations Board.

Most school districts have already begun making preparations for the new system. That starts with performing what’s called a “needs assessment” of their own schools and developing a five-year plan establishing goals for improvement.

After that, an external review panel, known as an Accreditation Review Council, will review all the relevant data from each district and their plans for improvement, and that group will recommend to the State Board of Education whether the school should be rated as accredited, conditionally accredited or not accredited.

Neuenswander said districts will have the option of entering the accreditation process at the first, second or third year of the five-year cycle, depending on how much preparation they have done so far.

Lawrence school district spokeswoman Julie Boyle said in an email that the local district plans to enter in the first year of the cycle.