- Associated Press - Friday, August 22, 2014

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - After more than a decade of national education policy that promoted a test-centric view of schools, a better approach is finally materializing, interim education commissioner Brad Neuenswander said.

In an interview with The Topeka Capital-Journal (https://bit.ly/1ArEmWG ), Neuenswander laid out the changes coming to Kansas schools in the 2014-15 school year.

Chief among those, he said, is the ongoing shift away from No Child Left Behind, a 2001 federal law that required states to set uniform test-score targets in mathematics and reading for all schools, regardless of varying circumstances.

For years, Kansas has worked on the key pieces of a revised approach to education, he said. That has included overhauling the state’s curricular standards for math and reading, redesigning state tests, reforming teacher evaluations and other changes.

“Finally everything’s starting to fall into place this year,” he said.

It is a message the education department will emphasize to more than 1,000 Kansas educators at its annual conference in October with the theme: “It’s go time.”

Neuenswander, a former superintendent for the Cheney and Ellis school districts who has worked at the Kansas State Department of Education for eight years, is filling the top spot at that department while the Kansas State Board of Education seeks a new commissioner.

Diane DeBacker, the previous commissioner, left her position in May to become an adviser to the director general of the Abu Dhabi Education Council in the United Arab Emirates.

Neuenswander said the ongoing changes to K-12 education in Kansas are major, and have moved gradually by design to help ensure “a soft landing.”

Four years ago, Kansas adopted new math and reading standards. Called the Common Core, or, in Kansas, the Kansas College and Career Ready Standards, they are part of a multistate initiative for teaching those subjects with a greater focus on preparing students for college and careers.

Then, more than a year ago, the state adopted new science and history standards.

Last spring it scrapped its old state math and reading tests and piloted new ones that focus less on multiple choice and more on analytical skills.

This year, all 286 of the state’s school districts will use in-depth evaluations to assess teachers, principals and superintendents. And next spring, Kansas students will take the new math and reading tests again, only this time, the tests won’t be a pilot run.

The new approach will still produce annual test data viewable in aggregate form to the public, a continuation from No Child Left Behind meant to promote accountability and transparency in K-12 education. Schools will, however, now have progress targets that are tailored to them, rather than setting one target for the whole state.

Additionally, the state education department will look at more than one kind of progress: for example, how fast schools improve and whether they narrow achievement gaps among low and high-scoring children.

“That is so different from what they’ve lived with for the past decade,” Neuenswander said.

Many educators are wondering whether the changes will, as promised, relieve what many have seen as a long-running overemphasis on standardized testing and teaching to the test.

“We’re trying to change it,” Neuenswander said. “It’s going to take some time to get used to a new system.”

Neuenswander said the state education department doesn’t want teachers to spend time preparing students for tests. If they simply focus on quality instruction in the classroom, he said, their students will do well.

Kansas schools will see further changes in the next few years, too. For example, teachers will be evaluated in part based on the progress of their students. By 2017-18, schools must include their measures of student progress in personnel decisions about their teaching staff.

Though the reforms to K-12 education so far have been gradual, they haven’t always been smooth. Last spring’s pilot run of new state math and reading tests ran into internal glitches and external cyber-attacks that debilitated state testing for weeks before the issues were resolved.

The state’s new curricular standards, meanwhile, have faced attacks in the Legislature the past two years from conservative Republican lawmakers who sought to ban them.


Information from: The Topeka (Kan.) Capital-Journal, https://www.cjonline.com

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