When it comes to letting the public know how well schools in Missouri are doing, Pattonville Superintendent Mike Fulton has a simple goal:
He would like to see a system that is clear enough that a third-grader can explain it to adults.
“After all,” he says, “these tests ought to be designed for the child to be the first and most important audience. That’s an important theme here. If it’s not meaningful to the child, then why are we giving the test?”
Fulton is co-chair of a statewide group of superintendents that is looking at how states surrounding Missouri, and states that rank high nationwide in how schools perform, grade students and districts. They hope to have recommendations for state education officials during the coming school year.
Currently, Missouri school districts are classified as either accredited with distinction, accredited, provisionally accredited or unaccredited. The last category currently includes just Normandy and Riverview Gardens; state law allows students living in those districts to transfer to nearby accredited districts, with the sending district paying the tuition and in some cases transportation as well.
Initial research done for the group, released earlier this year by EducationPlus, found that of the eight states surrounding Missouri, only five accredit schools at all. Of the schools that rank in the top 10 nationally in education – a group that Missouri aspires to join by the year 2020 – only two accredit schools.
Fulton noted that even in states that do not accredit schools, districts are held accountable for how well their students perform. One area that the superintendents are focusing on is what the balance should be between state oversight and local control.
Add to that mix what the federal government requires – including the annual testing mandated by the No Child Left Behind system, where changes are now being debated in Congress – and Fulton said figuring out precisely what the rules are can be a challenge.
“It's hard to plan when you don't know what you're planning for,” he said, “and it's very frustrating. So when that target keeps changing, whether it's at the state or federal level, and whether or not you exist as a school district depends on that, but they can't really tell you what the target is, that's just not a very good way to do school improvement.”
Assessment, accreditation and adaptability
To determine how accreditation might be changed – and what role annual assessments may play – the superintendents' group is following several principles:
- Local control
- Continuous improvement
- Individual student growth, with attention to subgroup achievement
- Taking the right test at the right time
- Flexibility to meet current and future federal and state guidelines
- Achieving top 10 status one student at a time
- Simplicity so that a third-grader can explain the system to adults
Summed up, Fulton said the main thrust of the group is this:
“We’re trying to answer the question: How can we take what we have and make it better, so that all Missouri public school kids get a great education, and we have right levels of accountability but we also have as much local control in the system as we can.”
As far as the state’s goal of being in the top 10 educationally in just five years, Fulton thinks just half of that is realistic.
“We reaffirmed the state’s goal of achieving top 10 status in the country,” he said, “but we do not have the 2020 piece because we know we’re not going to make that target by 2020. But we do think the goal of achieving top 10 status is worthy, and that has to happen one student at a time.”
Typically, Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education releases a state’s annual performance report (APR) in August, so districts know where they stand as the new school year starts. This year, because of a change in the MAP tests taken in the spring, the APRs won’t be available until mid-October at the earliest.
Fulton says parents and others can still get a general idea of how schools are doing, but he cautions against reading too much into systems that aren’t always complete or understandable.
“There are lots of websites now that put some kind of a metric to how schools are doing,” he said. “Often, those are based solely on test scores, not in terms of growth, where students started and how they improved….
“I’m not sure people really fully understand what an APR actually means, other than if it’s a high APR it’s good and if it’s a low APR it’s bad …. So that’s one of the things we’re going to look at: Are there better ways of telling the story and getting accurate information to parents and citizens.”
But, Fulton added, that doesn’t mean that districts can afford to ignore the annual performance report now.
“Whether it’s a really good description of how a district is doing or not,” he said, “it is what the public sees. So every district in Missouri pays attention to their APR.”
He said that besides studying the situation themselves, the superintendents’ group hopes to get opinions from others. “We want to do this in a way that really hears a lot of voices,” he said.
The group hopes to have recommendations for state education officials by the end of the calendar year on assessment and later in the school year on accreditation. Fulton notes, though, that the group is advisory only.
“We don’t have any authority to do anything,” he said. “What we’re doing is a study designed to get the best thinking on the table and give that to the commissioner so that the commissioner and the state board have a research base to work from that is really well grounded and reflects kind of the best thinking from the field.”
And, he added, he wants to make sure one particularly important group is not left out of consideration.
“I’m not against assessment,” he said, “but it ought to be meaningful to the child. If it’s meaningful to the child, it will be meaningful to adults as well.”