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School-intervention proposals endorsed

Legislators back more options for remedies, measuring academic performance by Brian Fanney | March 21, 2017 at 3:20 a.m. | Updated March 21, 2017 at 3:20 a.m.

Arkansas would use more than standardized tests to assess a school's performance under a collection of bills that advanced in the Legislature on Monday.

And if a school fell short, the Department of Education would have more options to remedy the situation, according to the legislation.

The changes were proposed as the state adapts to the Every Student Succeeds Act -- federal legislation signed by then-President Barack Obama that replaced the No Child Left Behind Act and shifted some federal accountability to the states.

Under Senate Bill 647 by Sen. Jane English, R-North Little Rock, the state Department of Education would have greater flexibility in how to intervene in academically failing schools.

Under current state law, schools go into academic distress when 49.5 percent or fewer students test "proficient" or "advanced" on state-mandated math and reading exams over the previous three years.

There would be no more "academic distress" under SB647. Instead, schools would be assigned levels of assistance with varying roles for the state and the district.

The bill also would allow the state to determine a school's success on measures beyond test scores. That means test scores would no longer be the hard and fast measure by which schools go into distress.

"This opens the door to a number of different ways that a district can show that they are on track of improving and the other thing it does is it gives the state board more tools regarding what type of intervention," Education Commissioner Johnny Key said in an interview. "With this, you could actually leave a board in place or put it back in place in a much quicker time frame."

SB647 was approved by the Senate Education Committee on Monday without dissent after it was amended. It heads to the Senate for further consideration.

The bill originally allowed schools to be in the highest level of state support for seven years. That was changed to five years at the urging of Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock.

At the end of five years, the district has to be annexed, consolidated or reconstituted under current law.

"When we start talking about taking away community involvement for seven years, it gives me great pause because if you need a millage increase, you're not going to get it. If you need a bond extension, you're not going to get it," Chesterfield said. "If the state Department of Education hasn't fixed it by then ... that's what concerns me."

She added: "You can put lipstick on a pig. It's still a pig. This is still academic distress. We're just calling it No. 5."

Under the bill, level 5 support means the state Board of Education would assume control of a public school district and could remove the superintendent, fire employees, remove the school board, call for the election of a new school board or direct the education commissioner to take over some or all of the school board's authority.

Key said the bill's changes are different from the status quo because it "puts more of a responsibility and burden on the department to work with districts than just to leave the districts on their own."

He said the bill would include different levels of state support and options at level 5.

"This gives the state board different options when it comes to the notion of state takeover," Key said. "They could leave the board in place."

Later Monday, the House approved House Bill 1608 by Rep. Jana Della Rosa, R-Rogers. The bill would expand the measures by which schools are rated by the state Department of Education.

"What has driven the A through F [ratings] has been a single test score taken one time during the year," Della Rosa said. "What I'm looking to do is fundamentally change the way that we hold our schools accountable for education."

Under current law, schools are rated by academic performance and student growth as measured by standardized tests. Secondary schools also are rated by their graduation rates.

HB1608 would add a requirement that the department include advancement of English language learners in its metrics and it would give the department the option of including up to nine other metrics.

Those include: closing the achievement gap; academic growth of student subgroups like poor students, those with disabilities or ethnic subgroups; percentage of students with advanced placement credit, concurrent credit, international baccalaureate credit or industry recognized certification; student access to preschool; and community partnerships.

Rep. John Walker, D-Little Rock, spoke in favor of the bill.

"It is an undertaking to change the way business is done in Arkansas in education," he said. "You have, within your power, to rise above where we are and to cause an accountability system to be put in place that will cause all of our children to be able to learn."

The bill passed 85-0. It heads to the Senate for further consideration.

A Section on 03/21/2017

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