Kansas legislators drill into state Board of Education’s tweak to district accreditation rules
State board’s president pushes back against claims of weaker standards
Rep. Kristey Williams, a Republican from Augusta and chair of the House K-12 Education Budget Committee, is a proponent of substantive reform of the state’s public education system serving about 500,000 students. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — House and Senate education committee members chiseled away at the Kansas State Board of Education’s latest revision to school district accreditation rules and regulations, alleging objective measures were dropped in favor of subjective language not effective in promoting student achievement.
Rep. Kristey Williams of August and Sen. Renee Erickson of Wichita did their best Tuesday to define changes in the past year to the Kansas Education Systems Accreditation Model as destructive to the process of evaluating districts. They argued it would be beneficial to consider clear statistical evidence of kindergarten readiness, graduation rates or post-secondary success of students when deciding on renewal of district accreditation.
In the new standards, only assessment of social-emotional development was concretely affiliated with accreditation of the 286 public school districts in Kansas.
“We’re hearing the state board say achievement is important,” said Williams, chairwoman of the House Education Committee. “When we see things like the rules and regulations and the changes that were made, achievement is absent. It’s hidden. It’s buried. I don’t know if that’s intentional or unintentional.”
Erickson said the state Board of Education, which possesses authority over accreditation standards, had replaced an objective process with subjective considerations.
She said students across the state would benefit from an approach that held districts accountable for student academic performance.
The state board’s decision to soften the structure of Kansas’ school district accreditation process, she said, was a problem because student performance on standardized testing wasn’t moving in the right direction.
“Has student academic achievement increased or decreased since 2015 on any objective measure? It has decreased,” Erickson said.
Porter on hot seat
The target of the tag-team effort by Erickson and Williams during the first of two days of hearings on education issues at the Capitol was Jim Porter, president of the state Board of Education.
“There is a mistaken belief in some areas that academic achievement has been devalued,” Porter said. “That is certainly a false narrative.”
Porter said improving academic achievement among students in Kansas school districts remained the primary goal. Updated accreditation rules and regulations in Kansas are written in a way to avoid repeating state and federal requirements applicable to all districts, he said.
He said accredited districts in Kansas were still required to put 95% of the student population through standardized testing and to include 95% of each student subgroup in those state assessments. Other performance criteria, such as attendance and graduation rate. were no longer specifically included in the regulations.
“Accreditation has always been a measurement of improvement and growth — improvement in policies, improvement in school development, and improvement in student performance,” Porter said.
In addition, he said, cognitive development, technological awareness and civic engagement were also relevant to a person’s preparation for the next stage in life, whether that was college or workplace. He said accreditation should take into account the risk factors, such as poverty or parental participation, faced by school districts.
One size fits all?
Porter said the state Board of Education would invite distortions by placing in regulation an accreditation mandate that 75% of high school seniors had to graduate on time.
“One of two things could happen,” he said. “Districts could game the system to ensure students graduate regardless of whether such students actually earn a diploma, and districts may become complacent once that specified benchmark is reached. Neither of
those results help Kansas lead the world in the success of each student, and neither of those results are acceptable to the state board.”
He said the decision was made to avoid those pitfalls by considering performance goals on a district-by-district basis. There is merit to avoiding a one-size-fits-all model of accreditation, he said.
Williams said she didn’t think it made sense to have 286 different measures of student success as it related to district accreditation. She suggested a uniform requirement of student improvement would be more logical. Currently, all public school districts in Kansas are accredited.
“I don’t understand how the Legislature, parents, teachers, administrators and students would ever assume that academic achievement is the No. 1 priority when it’s not even included in accreditation anymore,” she said. “It has to be explicitly part of the accreditation.”
Rep. Valdenia Winn, a Democrat from Kansas City, Kansas, said rules and regulations created by the state Board of Education could be considered broad guidelines and not equivalent to state or federal law. She said “maybe there is a method to your madness” in terms of the state Board of Education’s approach to district accreditation.
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