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Testing remains big issue in state school improvement plan

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 15, 2011 - JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- As proposed changes in the way Missouri rates its school districts head toward a crucial vote by the state school board Tuesday, discussion on Monday centered on a controversial aspect of the rule -- testing.

The specific issues: How many tests should students take? How much should they count? What subjects should they cover?

Earlier this year, state education officials abruptly withdrew an earlier version of the proposal -- known as the fifth version of the Missouri School Improvement Plan, or MSIP5 -- because of complaints from a variety of groups that they had not had enough input.

The plan went back to the draft stage, with five regional advisory committees meeting three times each during the summer to contribute to the revised version of the proposal, which was unveiled last week. After discussing it for nearly three hours Monday afternoon, the state board will vote Tuesday on whether to move it along to the next stage, public comment.

The primary changes made from the document that was withdrawn in April to the new version are in the number of state-mandated tests that students must take and whether accreditation should be based mostly on student achievement on such tests or whether other standards, measuring a district's resources and processes, should also be included.

Chris Nicastro, Missouri's commissioner for elementary and secondary education, opened Monday's session by emphasizing the impact that the new MSIP5 plan will have on districts and students statewide.

"What we're doing here," she said, "is critically important to driving the performance of our state. We believe that maintaining higher standards is a key to establishing expectations that are going to encourage students, teachers, parents, community members -- everybody -- to aspire to higher levels of achievement."

Nicastro spelled out several principles of accountability that she says MSIP5 addresses, including aligning performance standards with preparing students for college or careers; making sure that standards measure both how well students are doing and how much their achievement has progressed; reviewing districts' performance in a meaningful way every year; and doing so in a transparent, timely and accessible manner, so the public can see how their schools are doing and why.

"It's no longer sufficient to say that a student has mastered certain things in high school," Nicastro said. "A student must be prepared to go beyond high school. Part of our mission has to be that students are ready to go on to college or a career after they leave us."She noted that earlier versions of the accreditation process took the measure of districts every five years. Under the new plan, data will be reviewed annually, though a district's status -- accredited, provisionally accredited or unaccredited -- may not change unless its numbers change, for better or for worse.

"We need to respond much more quickly to changing conditions," Nicastro said. "We shouldn't have a fixed set of months or days or even years that define expectations. We need to be able to change as conditions warrant, as the workforce changes and as the needs of students change."

Questions from board

Those broad principles, though, ran into some persistent questioning from members of the state board as staff members reviewed details of the revised MSIP5 proposal.

Peter Herschend of Branson, president of the board, noted that Tuesday's vote will not be on individual sections of the document but on whether the document as a whole should be forwarded for public comment.

"Not everybody is going to be happy," he said. "I can promise you that. But we need to be in agreement."

A few specific changes were made to the proposal. One, prompted by what some board members said was vague language on how the annual review of achievement results will be used, said:

"Reclassification may occur as a result of this annual review, but it is not automatic."

Mike Jones, a member of the board from St. Louis County, said such wording would help clarify for districts precisely how much is riding on each year's test results.

"If I'm a superintendent or a board member," he said, "what I want to know is, what does this review mean to me?"

Also suggested was the addition of a fourth classification, accreditation with distinction.

The most spirited debate came over how many tests students should take, how much they should count and what subjects should be tested. Currently, high school students must take eight tests. An earlier version of MSIP5 called for the number to jump to 14, but that total was scaled back to 11 in the revised version. Some are so-called end-of-course tests; others are end-of-high-school tests.

Still, board member Debi Demien of Wentzville expressed concern that too many tests would result in too much time taken away from more general learning.

"The testing schedule we have here bothers me a great deal," she said. "I thought the end-of-course test was supposed to be a final, so it would cover content that is supposed to be taught in that class, and we would know when a student had mastered that material.

"An end-of-high-school test is going to have unintended consequences, and I'm worried about it. Kids aren't going to take it seriously unless it affects their grades. These tests are going to take a lot of time away from instruction. Instead of learning something new, teachers are going to be mandated to test students over material they've already been tested on."

She also said that mandating such tests could take authority away from local districts and give more power to Jefferson City.

"When you give that test," Demien said, "with those hard consequences, what you're doing is giving the state much more control over that student. It has a feeling of dangerous potential here. That's what I have concerns about."

Nicastro noted that the end-of-high-school tests, if used in other states besides Missouri, would help the state determine how well its students are doing nationally, based on an apples-to-apples comparison.

"I'm also really hoping to make sure that these assessments are accepted by both colleges and universities and by employers as some indication of proficiency," she said, adding that a certain score could mean acceptance to a two-year college program while a higher score could get a student into a highly selective school.

Another point of contention was whether fine arts and physical education assessments should be required. In the present plan they are not, a point that made some board members unhappy.

Nicastro agreed that "an adequate education, with basic accreditation, should assume some exposure to an experience with fine arts and physical education, as well as speech and I would add foreign language. There are a whole level of things that we should say constitutes what we believe is a good education, and certainly fine arts are on that list.

"That doesn't mean we can and should assess every piece of that. We have to determine what is the appropriate intervention for the state and what is best left to the local level."

In the end, Herschend proposed that a sentence be added to the MSIP5 proposal that says:

"Process standards will include a demonstration of adequate instruction in physical education and fine arts to be criteria of a district's accreditation."

He said that elevates one particular process standard above the rest, and rightfully so.

Long road still ahead

After the discussion of the proposal, Nicastro and Herschend praised the work of the department staff and others involved in drafting the new plan so quickly.

"We have a road yet to walk," he said. "This is simply a proposed order, and there are other hurdles yet to be jumped in the process. But because of the quality of thinking that you all collectively have put into this process, we have a document here that can survive."

When the state board votes on Tuesday, it will decide whether the newly revised wording should be put out for 30 days of public comment. After that period, changes may be made based on public reaction; then, the board will take a final vote to put the rule into effect, with an effective date of 2013, giving districts time needed to make whatever adjustments that have to be made.

One other topic Nicastro addressed is the possibility that Missouri may seek a waiver from federal education officials from the requirement of No Child Left Behind that all students must score proficient or advanced on the MAP test by 2014. She noted that Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said states may be granted such waivers, but she said she did not know whether Missouri would do so until Washington makes clearer the conditions involved.

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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