With new powers, state school board debates best way to help unaccredited districts | St. Louis Public Radio

With new powers, state school board debates best way to help unaccredited districts

Aug 20, 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: JEFFERSON CITY – The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has been working for years to get authority to step in more quickly to help unaccredited school districts.

Now that a newly signed law gives it that power, the state board of education wants to make sure that it uses it in the right way.

Senate bill 125, signed by the governor in July and effective next week, lets the state step in immediately when a school district becomes unaccredited instead of having to wait for two years as it was forced to in the past.

The bill was prompted by the situation in Kansas City, where the schools became unaccredited this year. Because of a pending court case, students may not yet transfer to nearby accredited districts, as students in unaccredited Normandy and Riverview Gardens have done this fall, but there is still uncertainty about what action, if any, the state may want to take to get the Kansas City schools back on track.

The state has sought bids from outside firms to help it put action plans together. But in the meantime members of the state board debated Monday a resolution that would have directed the department to “increase the instructional improvement efforts in all unaccredited districts and to exercise fiscal and managerial oversight of all expenditures, contracts, personnel obligations, legal actions and other matters.”

That wording was too vague for some board members, who said it sounded like the state would be stepping in and managing minute, day-to-day details of unaccredited districts’ operations instead of establishing broader oversight.

Education officials said that was not the intent of the resolution.

“We don’t want to be sitting here down the road and said we did nothing to advise and counsel with them concerning their financial situation,” said deputy commissioner Ron Lankford.

On the other hand, he added, “we don’t have the staff to approve every expenditure.”

Mark Van Zandt, legal counsel for the department, called the new authority “technical assistance with teeth.”

Under the law, the state board can establish levels of monitoring for an unaccredited district, but it must follow a variety of steps, including convening public hearings and seeing what community resources might be available to help the district regain accreditation.

The options available to the state board vary -- from appointment of a special administrative board, as it has done in St. Louis and Riverview Gardens, to attaching a lapsed district to another nearby district, as it did when Normandy absorbed Wellston, to establishing new districts within the boundaries of an existing one, which has not been done yet. The board may also come up with other ways to improve the situation.

Commissioner Chris Nicastro told the board that the department’s powers under law need to be clearly communicated to the public.

“The question has been asked frequently, now you have the authority, what are you going to do,” she said. "This is designed to answer that question."

“There is some level of increased responsibility, but we have to go through a public engagement process. Just as important, we have to take our time to do a very thoughtful analysis of these districts so we can develop a plan or plans that make sense going forward.”

Board president Peter Herschend of Branson said that whatever the department decides to do, it has to have the authority and the ability to act quickly.

“We might find out on Monday and have to act on a Tuesday,” he said.

The department plans to revise the resolution and present the new version when the board meeting resumes Tuesday morning. Click here to read what the board did on Tuesday.

MAP scores stay flat

Earlier in the meeting, officials presented statewide scores on the MAP tests taken by Missouri students in the spring. District-by-district scores will be made available later this week.

For the most part, the statewide scores showed little improvement from prior years. But that wasn’t true in all cases.

When Missouri high school students took the statewide exam given at the end of their biology course earlier this year, state education officials heard from about 100 students saying the test had been too hard.

Credit St. Louis Beacon graphic | 2013

So the test results presented to board Monday were a bit of a surprise – 74.7 percent of the 66,000 students taking the test scored proficient or advanced, up from just 55.1 percent a year earlier.

“That’s quite a jump,” said Michael Muenks,  a coordinator of assessment with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, particularly when compared with the relatively flat scores for the MAP science tests in grades five and eight.

Muenks assured members of the board that there was nothing “nefarious going on” but was not able to give a definitive answer to the question asked repeatedly by Herschend, as results of the statewide assessments were released: “What’s going on?”

That question became more pressing for many of the other tests, where students showed little or no progress, and in some cases even showed downward movement.

Credit St. Louis Beacon graphic | 2013

The questions were particularly sharp for results that showed little change in achievement gaps between students from minority groups or with special needs compared with scores from all students.

Those students make up what the department calls a special subgroup, including African-Americans, Hispanics, low-income students, those with disabilities and English language learners. They were lumped together, according to commissioner Nicastro, because rules usually discount subgroups that have fewer than 30 students, so in many cases across the state their scores had not received any special attention.

But the attention their scores got from the board on Monday was not favorable.

For example, in communication arts, in 2011 the gap between the super subgroup students and all students was 13.5 percentage points; that grew to 13.6 this year. In social studies, the gap grew from 14.7 points in 2011 to 15 points this year, with the subgroup score actually dropping over the two-year period, from 39.4 percent in 2011 to 35.7 percent this year.

“We’re not going in the direction we want to go,” Muenks told the board.

He did say that when districts find themselves in the situation that Missouri schools are in now, when there is a change in the assessment system, often they tread water while they can get a better idea of how to deal with them most effectively.

Nicastro added:

“We have a double whammy right now because we have new academic standards along with a new accountability system.”

But Herschend was clearly distressed with the lack of progress in closing the persistent achievement gap and in moving toward the department’s goal of being in the top 10 states in education nationally by the year 2020.

“This board has the easy job,” he told department officials. “It’s you guys and all the professionals you represent that have to do the hard work. And it is hard work. We recognize that.

“But in the long haul, the rules of the game are changing out there. The playing field was modified to make it 110 yards instead of 100. We have to learn how to do things differently. At the end of the day, we have 1 million kids have to do a good job for.”