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“We’re Trying To Fight a Guerrilla War”: Kansas To Battle With Feds Over Local Control Of Public Schools

Art Credit: KC Education Enterprise | Photo Credit: 123rf stock image

Next Monday, when students in the Kansas City, Kansas (KCK) district return to school after spring break, they’re going to get some bad news. Those enrolled in grades three through seven are going to have to take about three more weeks of standardized tests this spring.

Unfortunately, these students are caught in the middle of a battle between the federal government and the Kansas State Board of Education over local control of public schools.

“How much learning takes place during those three weeks?” state board member Ken Willard asked KCK Assistant Superintendent Jayson Strickland during today’s meeting in Topeka.

The response: “Students are learning how to take assessments. Schools become assessment factories at this time.”

The board and district administrators today voiced the opinion that this additional testing is — in board member Kathy Martin’s words — “wasting money and time for our students.”

Last fall, KCK applied for permission to try a different — and they think better — way of assessing students’ academic skills. McPherson Unified School District 418 was already in their first year of piloting a similar alternative testing program, and KCK received a go-ahead from the state board. However, approval from the U.S. Department of Education has been pending since that time.

Friday afternoon, state department of education administrators received word that the U.S. Department of Education would allow KCK to use alternative assessments for their eighth-grade students. However, the district may not use alternative assessments for younger students. Therefore, even though most districts prepare logistics for state tests months in advance, KCK teachers and administrators must now find a way to arrange about three weeks of testing for up to 7,000 students by the end of April.

According to state education commissioner Diane DeBacker, federal officials expressed two reasons for their decision. First, they require a summative assessment — a test of students’ cumulative knowledge over the course of the year — and the NWEA-MAP test KCK proposed is a formative assessment, meaning it shows student progress during the course of a year. Second, according to the federal government, the NWEA-MAP test is below grade level for the students KCK wanted to assess.

Strickland, the KCK administrator who spoke at today’s board meeting, said his district planned to continue with their plans to use the NWEA-MAP test, even if the U.S. Department of Education also requires them to use the state assessment. As he described the NWEA-MAP, the first question does start below a student’s grade level. Questions then become progressively more difficult until the student starts making mistakes, and then questions become slightly easier. The next time a student takes the test, questions start at a higher level of difficulty. In order to track each student’s academic progress this year, KCK students in grades three to seven took this test in the fall and winter and will take it again before the end of the academic year.

Because this test is aligned with the new national Common Core Standards (which Kansas recently adopted) instead of the existing state test (which is based on old state standards), KCK administrators think the NWEA-MAP is a better assessment tool. It also has more of an emphasis on college and career readiness, Strickland said, adding “We wanted to give a more meaningful test.”

The test is not without its detractors, according to state board member John W. Bacon, who said some critics say the NWEA-MAP test is “too linear” or “too costly.” However, because the state board approved KCK’s use of this test, most members agreed with the district about its value compared with existing state testing.

During today’s meeting, state Board of Education members voted unanimously to extend this year’s state testing window until the middle of May to allow KCK additional time to test their students. Board members also voted 9-1 (with Walt Chappell voting against the motion) to support an appeal of the U.S. Department of Education’s decision in this matter.

Chappell said he voted against supporting an appeal, because he objected to “un-elected federal officials making decisions about our kids.”

Other board members, including chairman David T. Dennis, agreed with Chappell’s insistence on the importance of local control of schools. However, if the board and KCK refuse to accept the U.S. Department of Education’s decision, the district might lose all Title I funding from the federal government.

“There’s a big difference between ‘might’ and ‘will’,” Chappell said. “This is blackmail, pure and simple. We don’t need to keep playing this game.”

Although Dennis and other board members sympathized with Chappell’s frustration, the chairman said it would be best to start by approaching the U.S. Department of Education diplomatically, supporting an appeal and contacting government and elected representatives on the federal and state level.

He cautioned against “escalating to nuclear warfare when we’re trying to fight a guerrilla war right now.”

“We’re trying to do the right thing for kids,” Strickland said, speaking on behalf of KCK. “Tell the feds, ‘Learn from us.'”

The Kansas State Board of Education held their monthly meeting today, March 13, at the Kansas State Department of Education offices in Topeka.


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About jwmartinez

JoLynne is a journalist and educator. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and a Master of Arts in Teaching from Park University and is certified to teach high school journalism and English. Former employment includes work for Cable News Network and the University of Missouri-Kansas City in addition to freelancing for clients such as the Kansas City Star and The Pitch.


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