The McPherson school district's attempt to develop its own assessment standards highlights a weakness of the federal No Child Left Behind Act and state testing — one-size-fits-all standards don't always match the needs of students and local school districts.
McPherson plans this fall to ask the U.S. Department of Education for a waiver so that it can use its own assessment standards for grades 6 through 12, rather than the state tests. Kansas State Board of Education members have blessed the request, and other Kansas school districts are watching closely to see what happens.
McPherson's proposal is not about avoiding accountability or weakening standards, stresses Randy Watson, McPherson's superintendent. "We want to be held accountable," he told The Eagle editorial board. But the district wants assessments to be relevant to its students — and that's not always the case now, he said.
The McPherson district correctly sees a high school degree as merely one step in life's journey. As a result, it wants its assessments to make sure students are prepared for what comes after graduation, whether that is a job or college.
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Rather than continue to use the state tests, the district wants to require various ACT exams, which it thinks do a better job measuring college readiness.
For example, even though McPherson eighth-graders achieved the highest standard on state reading assessments last year, only 43 percent of those students qualified as on track to be "ready for college," according to the reading portion of the ACT Explore test.
McPherson also wants to use the ACT WorkKeys and Kansas WorkReady job assessment systems, along with internships and job shadowing, to make sure students are prepared to enter the work world.
And it wants to add another assessment component to make sure students are ready to become good citizens, which includes character education and service to the community.
Districts are required to give their students annual tests as part of NCLB and to show adequate yearly progress on improving assessment scores. That wouldn't change at McPherson — only that its annual progress and proficiency requirements would be based on the ACT tests and others standards, not the state assessments.
McPherson is the first district in Kansas to request a waiver to use its own standards, and in doing so, it is swimming against the tide. A push for national common-core standards could eventually lead to national testing and even more centralization of education standards.
Once upon a time, school districts had more local control so that they could respond to local needs. McPherson's waiver request shows why that is still important.