The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

January 8, 2013

Joplin, other districts face tougher accreditation requirements from state

By Emily Younker

JOPLIN, Mo. — A tougher state accreditation system that places more emphasis on graduation rates, among other criteria, will challenge school districts such as that of Joplin to get those rates up over the next three years or become “provisionally” accredited.

The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education put together a draft report using data from the 2011-12 school year as part of its preparation for switching to a new set of standards this school year. Using the new model of accreditation with last year’s data, Joplin, Wheaton and nearly 30 other districts statewide would be provisionally accredited, rather than fully accredited.

Districts continue making updates to the data used in the draft report. The state department has said most districts won’t see their accreditation classification change until 2015, giving them time to improve under the new system.

Angie Besendorfer, assistant superintendent in Joplin, said the draft report does not change anything for the district, which already has been working on many of its weaknesses.

“In the old system, we were held accountable for many of the same criteria, but the criteria were all weighted equally, and that is the major difference with the new system,” she said. “One of the categories that’s rated more heavily is graduation rates, and it’s no secret that that’s been a challenge for us.”

The district has worked for years to bring up its graduation rate. It was 78.5 percent last year, up from 75.1 percent in 2009, but is still below the state average, according to the state education department. It is worth about three times more in the new system than in the old system, Besendorfer said.

Besendorfer said the new system also gives points for every high school student taking a college or career readiness exam, such as the ACT, SAT or ASVAB, whereas the old model looked only at a district’s average score of students taking those exams. The Joplin district has not required its 2,100 high school students to take one of the exams at some point during their high school career.

The new system also gives more weight to higher test scores in some subjects, and it requires schools to track things such as how many students succeed in higher-level courses rather than just how many enroll in them.

Besendorfer said the draft report is “not a concern” for the school district.

“For us, it’s like here’s where we are, and the game is different, so let’s make sure we’re doing all the things we need to do to gain the points under the new system,” she said. “It (the draft report) is really just a mock-up of what it will look like when we get the data next year, and the year after, and the year after. And when they get three years of data, then we’ll get our accreditation.”

The Wheaton School District also is now fully accredited but would be listed as provisionally accredited in the draft report. Superintendent Lance Massey said the district’s data were complicated by some “reporting errors.” Administrators plan to use the report as a way to focus on areas needing improvement, such as attendance rates, and students’ college and career readiness, he said.

“This gives us a draft to know where we need to be to make sure we are fully accredited in three years when the new standards come out,” he said. “We would very much look at this as a tool to look at where we stand now and evaluate where we need to be in the future as a continuous improvement model.”

Under the new system, districts must earn 50 percent of overall points or face the risk of becoming unaccredited. Districts that are unaccredited can ultimately face a state takeover, while provisionally accredited districts — those that earn between 50 percent and 70 percent of overall points — are subject to extra monitoring.

The draft report shows that five districts would fall in the unaccredited range and 31 districts would fall in the provisionally accredited range.

Under the old system, only about 20 of the state’s 520 districts fell in the unaccredited or provisionally accredited performance range. Because the state reviews several years of data before making an accreditation change, only three districts are now officially deemed unaccredited, and 11 are provisionally accredited.

The state’s system of accrediting schools predates the federal No Child Left Behind education law, and the latest version is the fifth. It’s not uncommon when the state updates the evaluation system for early estimates to predict jumps in the number of districts falling in the unaccredited and provisionally accredited range. Ultimately, many of those districts are able to improve enough to avoid those categories, and the state plans to work with districts to ensure the same thing will happen this time.

“Districts typically have demonstrated that they have risen to the occasion and they have shown some great improvement,” said Margie Vandeven, an assistant commissioner for the state department.

Roger Kurtz, executive director of the Missouri Association of School Administrators, cautioned against reading too much into the draft report, noting that the data are still being assessed.

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS contributed to this report.