Shifting the tide of school district accountability

By Erika Pedroza | Published Saturday, April 27, 2013

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In opposing the current state accountability system, school officials across the state have advocated for a more well-rounded approach – one that takes into account a student’s role in designing the yearbook, celebrates a student’s internship at the local bank or gives her credit for volunteering in the church daycare on Sunday mornings.

Northwest ISD may be inching toward that realization – at least on the local level.

At its school board’s meeting Monday, educational consultant Denise Collier introduced the concept of community-based accountability as a more “reasonable” way to gauge the success of NISD students.

The locally-developed system would measure and descriptively report student achievements by themes that have been deemed important by a focus group comprised of students, teachers, parents, principals and district administrators.

“We spent a lot of time in this process asking this group of folks what’s important,” said Edward Chevallier, NISD assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. “Is one test on one day the most important thing to us? Or is what happens 180 days out of the year that works toward that day, as well as any other day, what’s important to us?”

The themes and example measuring standards include:

  • academic preparation and college readiness – college application, acceptance and attendance rates; readiness gauged by ReadiStep and PSAT; admission assessments (ACT and SAT); high school academies; advanced placement (AP) and dual-credit participation and grades; student projects and demonstrations.
  • personal growth and success – extra-curricular and co-curricular engagement; awards and recognition; workplace internships.
  • citizenship and community service – participation in mentoring programs such as PALS, programs connecting secondary and elementary students; and service learning such as The Big Event, food drives, blanket drives, participation in events such as Race for the Cure.
  • student, parent, community and staff satisfaction – surveys and engagement.

“Over the weekend, I got to watch (Byron Nelson culinary students) competing at the national competition live on the Internet as they cooked their competition dishes,” Chevallier said. “… And as I sat watching that … I’m thinking, ‘I don’t see a place for that in (the current accountability system)’; … Two weekends ago, we had hundreds of kids from Northwest High School participating in The Big Event, spread out all over our community. Their choice. They volunteered. There is no place in (the current system) to reflect that.”

The new standards, Chevallier and Collier said, can help counter an overreliance on testing and truly prepare students for life after graduation.

“That’s the accountability we see fit,” Chevallier said. “A student that graduates today, yes, still needs content skills,” Chevallier said, “but they need so many other skills – collaboration, being able to problem-solve, being able to take a piece of information and look at it new in different ways, which is reflected in this framework.”

Collier contended that the current testing system has fostered only a “race to mediocrity.”

From an “unacceptable” rating, schools strive to move students from failing to merely passing. The step up from that is an “academically acceptable” rating where enough students are passing, but there’s only a low level of academic rigor.

After achieving “recognized” status, schools work toward an “exemplarary” label, where most students meet the minimum standard but few are working at a college readiness level.

Collier calls this “the worksheet effect – a consequence of learning being TAKS-hijacked.

“Be it TAKS or STAAR, it’s built on the same kind of system,” she said. “There is a magic line somewhere on TAKS, as there is in STAAR, below which a student failed the test or doesn’t meet standards; above which, students pass, or meet standard. Then there’s a higher line, ‘how many items did I get correct above the magic passing line.’ That’s what all the reports and all the slicing and dicing and all the measuring and reporting and labeling is built upon – these magic lines.”

A system devised according to community values would provide more rigor and be better aligned to the graduate profile.

“There is a renewed focus on the most important person – the student,” Collier said. “This is what we call a stage-four school. Almost all students in the school are exceeding the college readiness standard on the test. Campus ratings are high, and student achievement is high because instruction is based on academic rigor and a college preparation curriculum.”

The new vision for public education in Texas embraces a digital-learning environment, sets rigorous and relevant learning standards – and progress is measured by more accurate learning assessments and accountability standards.

“There is organizational transformation and a more balanced and reinvigorated local/state partnership,” she said.

The board was pleased with what was proposed as they deliberated the district’s next step.

“I think it reflects exactly what our community wants; it reflects what’s going on at Northwest ISD and what it takes to be a graduate,” board president Mel Fuller said. “What do we do next?”

Chevallier didn’t see a need for any new effort.

“We continue doing exactly the things that you as a board are allowing us and encouraging us to do, only we do it louder and more enthusiastically and we do it even more,” he said.

Collier agreed, adding that Northwest ISD, as a high-performing district, can help set the tone for a needed change in Texas school policy.

“I am optimistic that the tide is shifting, with community-based, thoughtful leadership like you have exhibited leading the way,” Collier said.

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