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Missouri schools face tougher accreditation standards

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 2, 2012 - Starting two years from now, Missouri school districts will have to meet stricter standards for accreditation under a policy adopted by the state board of education this week.

Meeting in Branson, the board adopted the fifth version of the Missouri School Improvement Plan, known as MSIP5. The new standards were developed by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education with help from participants in regional meetings during the summer.

Education commissioner Chris Nicastro said in a statement following the board's actions that MSIP5 will help make Missouri's school standards among the highest nationwide, in keeping with the state's goal of being in the top 10 educationally by the year 2020.

"I commend the visionary leadership of our State Board members and many stakeholders who have worked tirelessly to ensure the new standards will meet the needs and expectations of our students and our state," Nicastro said. "The updated standards support our goals to promote continuous improvement statewide and to ensure all students graduate ready for success in college and careers.

"Educators, business people and other community leaders across Missouri have told us how important it is that we have higher expectations for education. MSIP5 is a critical component for continuing to build a quality educational system in our state."

Nicastro and her staff have emphasized that the new standards adhere to several principles of accountability, 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.

Under earlier versions of the school improvement plan, districts were evaluated every five years to determine their accreditation status. Under MSIP5, districts' data will be reviewed annually, though their status may not change unless the numbers warrant a new designation.

One change that students will notice when the new standards go into effect will be in the number of tests they have to take. Currently, high school students have to take eight tests mandated by state standards. An earlier version of MSIP5 called for the number to jump to 14, but that total was scaled back to 11 in response to concerns raised by the regional panels during hearings over the summer.

The passage of MSIP5 ends a process that was short-circuited twice.

In April, just before an earlier version of the standards was scheduled to be presented to the state board for approval, it was pulled back because of objections from a number of statewide education groups. That opposition led to the regional hearings, which were designed to gather more feedback and give a wide range of education stakeholders the chance to contribute their views.

Two years ago, just after Nicastro began her tenure as commissioner, another version of the standards was taken off the table to give her time to settle in to her job and give the department time to concentrate on the first round of Race to the Top, the competition for federal education dollars.

Now that MSIP5 has been approved, state education officials will work to put together a scoring guide that will determine when each specific standard has been met. Until the new criteria go into effect, districts will be judged by the current standards in MSIP4.

Kansas City Options

The other main topic of this week's state board meeting was the future governance of the Kansas City schools, which will become unaccredited as of Jan. 1.

Nicastro listed for board members on Friday five options that the department has considered, but in the end she made no recommendation, saying she wants to see what kind of consensus can develop among Kansas City leaders before proceeding. (Read her statement here.)

The options that she said were on the table were:

  • Status quo, which she termed as undesirable because it "is obviously failing the students."
  • Mayoral control, which Mayor Sly James said in a letter to Nicastro he is willing to take on. But she said that such a plan would not necessarily bring the district the educational leadership it needs.
  • An advisory board, which could work with the elected board to put improvements in place. Nicastro said that approach could work, but if it is not effective, the advances in student achievement that are needed could be delayed.
  • Dissolving the district and having neighboring districts take over, which she said would not address the problems that have gotten Kansas City into the situation it is now.
  • A special administrative board, similar to the boards that run schools in St. Louis and Riverview Gardens. Nicastro noted that current state law requires that no such board can be put into place until two full academic years after a district has lost accreditation, so naming one now would likely lead to a court fight and further polarize the community.

She said she would like to see the two-year requirement abolished or shortened, so situations like that in Kansas City can be handled more efficiently. But in the meantime, she deferred a decision while a consensus can come together.
"While we believe that action is urgent," Nicastro said, "it is critical for us not to make a decision prematurely. It is evident that the community is just now coming to understand the magnitude of their responsibility and the imperative for immediate change.

"Advancing a recommendation for governance or other intervention prior to the community reaching consensus about what this should look like would simply add to the dysfunction and prolong the disruption for children and adults. The Kansas City community, the Kansas City School District and the department must move forward as partners, not adversaries."

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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