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De-emphasize test scores in school accreditation, task force urges

A person filling in a standardized test bubble sheet with a pencil.
Flickr | Alberto G.

Updated at 3:50 p.m. May 17 with comment from state board members

A task force looking into better ways to accredit Missouri school districts says the state should judge its schools like it judges its teachers — with a number of different measurements that don’t rely so heavily on student test scores.

In a report presented to the Missouri state board of education at its meeting in Jefferson City on Tuesday, the task force concluded that Missouri should retain accreditation of districts but change the criteria it uses to determine whether schools are accredited, provisionally accredited or unaccredited. The task force is made up of superintendents and others.

Right now, of the 140 points possible for a district to earn on its annual progress report,  half come from student test scores. Springfield Superintendent John Jungmann, who co-chaired the task force, said the group wants Missouri to take a more balanced approach.

“We all believe that assessment is a part of how we should assess and monitor school performance,” Jungmann said in an interview, “but it can’t be the only piece of it. We should be evaluating and looking at inputs as well as outcomes, and quality inputs.

“Keep standardized tests, but look at other things such as climate and culture, the quality of instructional staff, and effective leadership and governance systems.”

He said that view mirrors the changes made in federal law, where the Every Student Succeeds Act replaced the No Child Left Behind guidelines earlier this year.

“I think the kind of backlash over a decade of No Child Left Behind is that the public has identified that schools should be made up by more than just what standardized scores look like,” Jungmann said.

He compared the task force’s recommendations to the state’s revised method of evaluating teachers, which takes a similar approach using a variety of indicators, rather than emphasizing student test scores.

“They are part of evaluating a teacher’s performance,” Jungmann said, “but they are not the only part, because there are a lot of other things that go into determining whether or not it’s a quality teacher and a quality experience for kids. The same exists for our schools and our districts.”

At Tuesday's state board meeting, members expressed appreciation for the proposals but wanted to make sure that whatever changes in accreditation are made helps school districts that are falling behind.

“They are the ones that get the publicity," said Peter Herschend of Branson. "They are the ones that, not without justification, get the press commentary, public commentary. Under the proposed evaluation system, I think we need to have a clear understanding of what happens when there’s failure.”

But, he added, "I don't want a process of accountability that focuses on failure. I want a  process of accountability that encourages innovation and encourages success."

Board Vice President Vic Lenz of south St. Louis County said he wants to make sure that successful district can help others get better.

"How can we educate the kids the way they need to be educated," he said, "and really get a feel for who’s doing it well and who’s doing it best and how can we spread that out to everyplace, all districts?"

Preliminary research on accreditation conducted last year by Education Plus found that of the eight states surrounding Missouri, only five accredit schools at all. And out of the states that rank in the top 10 nationally in education — a group that Missouri hopes to join by the year 2020 — only two accredit schools.

Jungmann said even the states that don’t accredit schools still have accountability measures similar to those in Missouri’s system. He said the task force thinks Missouri should retain accreditation, just refine the factors that go into the decision.

“Very few do it the way we do,” he said, “but we weren’t interested in addressing that issue at this point. We tried to see if we could take our current system and create a better system.”

That improvement, Jungmann said, would also allow local districts to have more authority by choosing certain criteria that they would like to concentrate on.

“Let’s say [there are] two indicators or two standards that deal with performance, academic achievement and the success rate with graduates,” he said. “But we would also ask that the state start to give districts local choice on additional indicators they may want to use as part of the quality of their system. It may be interim assessments that show progress and growth in another way, or may be student experiences.

“We think those things should be identified and highlighted as part of the way of improving a quality school.”

He said that such a change would not weaken the effort to make sure that local districts measure up to statewide standards.

“We think we can still do that with a statewide system,” Jungmann said, “because we do believe it's important for our department to be engaged and guaranteeing that every kid has access to quality schools.”

One recommendation that the task force has made would do away with a status that currently exists but has not been used because the state board has not been able to decide on how to award it: accreditation with distinction. The board has debated on how to make the criteria strict enough to merit the description but not so strict that no district makes the grade.

If the board does want to keep that classification, the task force said, it could require that a district meets or exceeds 90 percent of the standards for academic achievement and that they make sure graduates are ready for college or career, plus an additional standard.

Springfield Superintendent John Jungmann
Credit Provided
Springfield Superintendent John Jungmann

In an earlier discussion of the report, the task force’s other co-chair, Pattonville Superintendent Mike Fulton, said he would like to see a new system that is easy enough to understand that a third-grader could explain it to others. Jungmann said making the changes he is proposing could help reach that goal.

As to the aspiration of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education that Missouri schools be in the top 10 of states nationwide by the year 2020, Jungmann echoed Fulton’s view that the ranking is desirable but the timetable appears unrealistic.

“We struggled with that top 10 by ’20 kind of moniker,” he said. “We believe all kids should be successful, but not necessarily that the success should be determined on how we rank against other states on the standardized test measures.

“We want every kid to be top 10 by ’20, one student at a time, and that’s based on their growth and it’s also based on some of the other factors that make them success-ready graduates that aren’t traditionally measured in our accreditation structure.”

Next month, the task force plans to present its conclusions on the assessment portion of its charge.

Follow Dale on Twitter: @dalesinger

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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