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After statewide sessions, Missouri education officials release revised accreditation plan

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 12, 2011 - When Missouri education officials abruptly withdrew a proposal earlier this year to revamp how districts would be evaluated, in the face of broad-based criticism from school groups, they said they would gather feedback and make changes accordingly.

Judging by the newly revised plan that will go to the state Board of Education next week, they took the suggestions to heart.

Compared with the draft pulled off the table in April, the new proposal -- the fifth edition of the Missouri School Improvement Plan, or MSIP5 --

  • calls for students to take fewer tests, including no assessments in fine arts or physical education;
  • includes so-called resource and process standards as well as those for academic achievement;
  • does not separate students out by gender for evaluation purposes;
  • and pays more attention to students who leave high school and go straight into the workforce.

Those areas and more were emphasized by members of regional advisory panels that met in St. Louis and four other cities three times earlier this summer. Margie Vandeven, assistant education commissioner for the office of quality schools, who ran the process, said the feedback from the meetings played a big part in reshaping the accreditation proposal.
"We made sure we stayed very closely in line with the messages," Vandeven said in an interview Thursday. "We took all of the information back to Jefferson City and compiled it, posted it online for everyone to see verbatim, then gathered a consensus on the pieces where we felt there was a majority"

The revised MSIP5 plan will be discussed by the state board in a work session in Jefferson City Monday afternoon. On Tuesday, in its regular meeting, the board will decide whether to adopt the plan and send it out for 30 days of public comment. Depending on their reaction, they may also decide to send it back to the drawing board.

If that is their decision, it would be the third time plans to come up with a new accreditation system would be derailed. Two years ago, when Commissioner Chris Nicastro was new in her job, and the federal Race to the Top program was announced, they put a plan on hold to concentrate on other priorities.

Earlier this year, the second stab at a new plan was pulled back at the last minute when groups ranging from board members to administrators to teachers lodged their objections, saying that they had not played a large enough role in putting the plan together.

Their complaints were grouped in a few general areas, including too much attention paid to whether high school graduates were going to college, as opposed to entering the workforce; too many tests for high school students, particularly in areas that may not be taught in all districts; and too much of an emphasis on test scores, to the exclusion of what are called resource and process standards, which include how much money a district has to spend and whether it makes available courses in fine arts, physical education as well as library offerings.

To the last point, Vandeven pointed out that the newest proposal calls for the department to review and revise resource and process standards, for consideration in a new rule by next summer.

On tests, where high school students now are required to take eight exams before graduation, and the earlier MSIP5 proposal increased that to 14, the new plan reduced that number to 11 -- three each in English, math and science plus two more in social studies.

It also gives credit to districts for students who move into a job after graduation, particularly one directly related to career technical training.

Instead of the five-year cycle on which districts are judged now, MSIP5 calls for continuous gathering of data, and a district's rating -- accredited, provisionally accredited or unaccredited -- will remain the same unless its performance changes, either for better or for worse.

Overall, Vandeven said, the resulting MSIP5 proposal responded to the process over the summer and is a stronger plan than what would have been submitted earlier.

"It's focused on performance outcomes for students," she said. "This is really designed to talk about college and career readiness for all kids. It's focused on making sure these students will exit focused on post-secondary success."

Noting that the assessment portion of the plan is dependent in part on state funding, which has waned in recent years as Missouri's budget tightened, Vandeven acknowledged that standardized testing has had to be cut back because there was not enough money to pay for the necessary scoring.

But, she added, MSIP5 will govern the accreditation of districts for several years, and "we are optimistic that some state funding will return."

Educators respond

One member of the regional advisory committee that met in St. Louis, Art McCoy, superintendent of the Ferguson-Florissant schools, said he was pleased with how the MSIP5 proposal was changed in response to comments made in the meetings.

"The changes are very positive changes," he said. "While there are still questions and pieces that were not communicated, I think what they have shown is encouraging."

He was particularly happy with the attention given to students who may not go to college but are still spending their post-high school years productively.

"It's not only college readiness that's important, it's career readiness," he said. "Many districts, like ours, have certification in career areas, so kids may graduate with a degree to become a culinary service worker or a carpenter. If they got those jobs as an 18-year-old without going to college, we would have had a mark against us, even though they would have been ahead of the game."

One of the points emphasized in the discussions about MSIP5 was Missouri's goal to be in the top 10 states nationwide in education by the year 2020. McCoy said that the new version of the proposal goes much further than the earlier one in lining up requirements for school districts with the Top 10 by 20 goal.

But it could go further still, he added.

"We have to work to make sure we are being accountable to the things that are our goals," McCoy said. "If top 10 by 20 is our goal, we have more work to do, but I still think the recommendations going to the table are far better than what was suggested earlier."

Jim Simpson, superintendent in the Lindbergh School District, agrees that the latest version of MSIP5 shows that DESE officials were paying attention to comments made by him and other members of the St. Louis area regional advisory committee.

"I'm very encouraged," he said. "They have modified the controversial sections of MSIP5, and I believe they now have a plan that Missouri educators can get behind."

Two areas that Simpson was particularly pleased to see, he said, were the cut in the number of tests required and the decision not to add a gender subgroup to the roster of classifications that must achieve proficiency on state tests to meet federal requirements of No Child Left Behind.

"Everybody has a part of MSIP5 that is near and dear to their district," Simpson said. "It depends on where you are in the accreditation process, but from Lindbergh's standpoint, we really don't want to triple the amount of assessments we're giving.

"We're already assessing two weeks out of every year now."

As far as the gender subgroup, he made clear that he isn't against making sure that males or females are doing well on state-mandated tests. The problem, Simpson says, comes when every subgroup has to do well or a district is downgraded as a whole.

"A lay person may say, why would you object to that?" he said. "But it's another layer of testing and accountability. Every subgroup is another home run you have to hit, and we already have nine home runs we have to hit in Lindbergh.

"Adding a 10th home run doesn't make any sense, especially now that we're in the 75 percent proficiency requirement, heading to 100 percent by 2014, and hardly any districts are meeting the requirements. Adding another layer to something that 98 percent of the districts aren't doing now doesn't make sense. We're already pretty well up to our neck in lots of accountability."

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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