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Monday, March 28, 2011

Missouri Proposed School Changes Focus Student Academic Performance


Proposed school changes in Mo. would track college success

Monday, March 28, 2011

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Missouri is proposing sweeping accreditation changes for its public schools that would add new statewide tests, including an end-of-high-school exam, and require districts to better monitor how their graduates fare in college.
The newest version of the Missouri School Improvement Program would focus solely on how students perform academically. The state would no longer take into account such things as the ratios of students to teachers, administrators and counselors, and whether districts offer certain courses such as art and physical education.
Districts also would be reviewed annually instead of once every five years and would be required to report a host of new details on everything from their early childhood programs to the percentage of students completing federal financial aid forms.
Michele Clark, a spokeswoman for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said the direction the state is heading is "really exciting." The State Board of Education gave initial approval this month to the plan, which is revised every five years. The latest changes are part of an effort to move Missouri toward being ranked among the top 10 states in educational performance. The state now ranks closer to the middle.
But the changes have raised a range of concerns. Some fear that ratios of students to staff would rise and that art and music would be overlooked because meeting certain staffing ratios and teaching certain classes would only be guidelines. New fine arts tests are included under the latest accreditation changes - but those tests would be taken just twice between kindergarten and high school graduation.
"I think there is going to be an all-out effort to voice opposition to what the state board is doing," said Mike Wood, a lobbyist with the Missouri State Teachers Association.
The Missouri Association of School Administrators has voted to ask the State Board of Education to delay finalizing the changes until educators could voice their concerns. The Missouri Association of Secondary School Principals discussed the plan this weekend, but members didn't vote.
"Our folks are extremely dissatisfied by the process with which it was developed," said Roger Kurtz, the administrators association's executive director. He said part of the problem is that educators don't feel that their questions are being answered.
Responding to the concerns Sunday, State Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro said the education department will make a renewed effort to gather input on the changes.
"There is a very wise Japanese proverb: 'None of us is as smart as all of us,' and we need to hear from everyone," Nicastro said in a statement. "It has become clear that we must redouble our efforts to receive this valuable input."
Hundreds of comments about the proposed changes have already been submitted to the state, and more are expected. The Board of Education will accept comments for 30 days starting April 15 before making a final decision in May. Nicastro said the state also is offering to meet with the educational organizations.
The standards are used to evaluate schools and spur improvement. Currently, St. Louis and nearby Riverview Gardens are the state's only two districts deemed unaccredited - a designation that can ultimately lead to a state takeover.
Ten other districts, including Kansas City, are provisionally accredited, meaning they're subject to extra scrutiny.
The plan includes new year-end tests for physics, chemistry, world history and 11th grade English. But it's the proposed end-of-high-school exams, which some states use to gauge whether students can graduate, that have some educators most spooked.
"The fear is that at some point in time these tests would become a requirement for high school graduation," said Jim L. King, executive director of the Missouri Association of Secondary School Principals.
Clark, the education department spokeswoman, said any conversation about student graduation requirements would be separate from the accreditation changes.
The proposed standards also would require districts to monitor the percentage of their graduates taking remedial coursework in college and how many of them earn either an associate's degree within three years or a bachelor's degree within six years. Previously, districts just had to document how many students were enrolled in college within six months of graduation.
Of the 21,440 first-time freshmen enrolled in Missouri's public colleges and universities in fall 2003, 2,462 had received a two-year degree and 6,555 had received a four-year degree in six years, according to the latest statistics available on the Missouri Department of Higher Education's website.
The department said that in fall 2009, 38.1 percent of first-time freshmen took at least one remedial course - most commonly in math.
Educators said they don't have control over students once they graduate and colleges have varying requirements for placing students in remedial courses.
Missouri community colleges are working to change that and have set a standard for placing students in remedial courses that takes effect this fall. But the four-year institutions don't have a consistent standard.
Clark said the education department is collaborating with the state Department of Higher Education to develop a consistent way to identify need for freshman remediation in college. She said remediation rates will not be considered for accreditation decisions under the proposed changes, but educators fear that could change.

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