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Mississippi Plan Links Schools' Achievement, Accreditation

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A task force in Mississippi has completed work on what may be the first statewide system in which school accreditation hinges on students' achievement and other "performance-based" standards.

Mississippi, apparently the first state to set up a system of this kind, has based its plan on research on school effectiveness.

Although other states and districts are using the research as the basis of school-improvement efforts, no others have yet taken the research and fashioned its findings into a school-accreditation system, according to experts in the field. Mississippi was required to do so by legislative man-date, approved as part of its 1982 education-reform act.

The commission, charged by the legislature to develop a performance-based system, does not have to submit the plan to any other body for approval. The plan--which may be modified somewhat by the commission--will go into effect in a limited number of schools beginning next fall.

Departure From Tradition

The new system represents a significant departure from the traditional way that states and regional accrediting agencies have accredited schools, which focuses on access to facilities, teacher certification, library books, and the like.

The new method, turning instead to the outcome of schooling, acknowledges that access to facilities does not guarantee learning.

The task force is hopeful that the new system will lead to "widespread improvement of school practices, which will almost certainly lead to improved student achievement," said Olon Ray, chairman of the task force and superintendent of the Biloxi Municipal Separate School District.

"We have identified the kinds of things that make a difference in good schools," Mr. Ray said. "We have said that schools will be looked at in terms of how well they're doing, and that continuous improvement will be the responsibility of each school district. That's what accreditation should be all about. That's not what it's been about."

School districts that do not meet the standards set for them will be placed on probation. Those that either fail to submit a plan to remedy their problems or fail to correct them may lose their accreditation and along with it, their state funding.

'Interesting Idea'

Although acknowledging that the process of setting up such a system will not be easy, researchers and practitioners who have advised Mississippi or who have studied the issue themselves tend to agree that the idea is well worth investigating.

"I think it's something that needs to be done," said P.J." Newell, assistant commissioner of education for instruction in the Missouri Department of Education. The Missouri Board of Education recently approved a plan in which schools may have a "plus" added to their aa or aaa accreditation if they participate in a voluntary testing program and achieve the levels set by the state.

"I think it's a very interesting idea," said Stewart Peurkey, research associate at the Wisconsin Center for Educational Research and Development at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who advised the Mississippi task force. "It's potentially a very good idea. A lot depends on how the policy is implemented, whether it becomes another school-accreditation paper chase or whether it succeeds in actually stimulating thoughtful reform efforts at the local level."

Legislative Mandate

Mississippi's new system of accreditation was required by the state's 1982 education-reform law, which also laid the foundations for a number of other reforms. As the first step in establishing performance-based accreditation, the legislature created a task force made up of edu-cators, policymakers, and members of the public.

The members of the task force, as well as those on a similar teacher-certification commission, turned for help to the National Institute of Education, the research arm of the U.S. Education Department.

nie officials agreed to act as "facilitators" by putting Mississippi officials in contact with experts--both researchers and practitioners--in the field. Norman Gold, a senior research associate for nie's teaching and learning center, identified the experts and worked with them and the state officials to help develop the initial plan.

Hearings and Testing

The new report is the product of 10 months' work by that task force, whose members met twice with the experts. The system it proposes will be the topic of public hearings over the next several months and will be sent to the state board of education on July 1. Next, after some possible modifications, the model will be tested for two years. The schools chosen for the test are likely to be those that have been identified either as very good or in need of improve-ment, according to Thomas Saterfiel, a task-force member and the director of a Mississippi research consortium.

The aim of that testing will be to determine whether the standards set up do indeed sort schools appropriately, Mr. Saterfiel said.

Six Components

The commission has designed a model that includes six major components: achievement, leadership, organization, instruction, staff development, and school climate. The task force has identified standards within each of the components.

In the proposed system, school districts would receive a rating of 1 to 5 (with five the highest) on each of the six components. Those districts that are found deficient will be placed on probation and required to submit a plan on how they will remedy the deficiencies. Failure either to submit the plan or to correct the problems may result in loss of state accreditation and loss of state funding.

"Under the old plan, the worst thing that happened if you lost accreditation, outside of local embarrassment, was that sports teams couldn't play," Mr. Saterfiel said. "The old pleas used to be, 'Let our children play.' Now it's going to be, 'Where's our check?"'

As the plan stands now, schools will be evaluated every five years by teams of state evaluators who will spend several days at each school.

Achievement Is 'Core'

Student achievement "is the core and heart of the model," according to the report; the other components were chosen because they have a direct effect on achievement.

The task force has defined student achievement as, "the degree to which students actually master essential basic-skills objectives, when selected background factors are taken into consideration," according to the report.

Within the broad category of student achievement, the task force set up two levels that the state should consider. The first is linked to the individual plans, called "Accountability and Instructional Management Plans," that all schools were required to set up under an earlier law.

The second level looks at the broader question of statewide standards. Although the plan proposes to judge schools largely in terms of their "achievement profiles"--how well they are doing compared to how well the state thinks they could do, given their specific circumstances--the task force also notes that a minimum level of achievement in the basic skills will be required of all schools.

Leadership Shared

The first "support area" for student achievement--leadership--is defined as "that activity on the part of some person or group which causes goals to be set, to be implemented, and to be achieved," according to the report.

But in the area of leadership--an activity traditionally assigned almost solely to administrators--the Mississippi plan again deviates from the usual practice, according to the experts.

Virtually all school personnel will be drawn into the process of improvement: teachers, instructional support personnel, principals, district administrators, and school-board members. And while all of those involved will share responsibility for the work involved, they will also share the credit for success, Mr. Saterfiel noted.

"So often, systems are created which cite noble aspirations but fail to assign responsibilities to the personnel who run the schools," the report says. "The accreditation process should create tension at each leadership level to determine how well 'I' am doing 'my job.' Rather than assigning responsibility elsewhere, we should attempt to judge the leadership impact of individuals at their assigned levels of responsibility."

The task force's report sets forth equally detailed and descriptive definitions for each of the other five characteristics on which school districts' effectiveness will be judged.

Positive Reception

Acknowledging that the plan is "difficult and demanding," Mr. Ray said that thus far, school administrators and other educators in Mississippi have responded favorably to it.

"There's a new wave of optimism among Mississippi educators that we can and must do something to redirect public eduction in our state," he noted. Weary of always finding themselves last on national lists of school achievement and other characteristics, Mississippi educators are geared up to improve the situation in whatever way they can, he suggested.

The most difficult aspect of putting the plan into effect, he said, would be not be determining whether the behavior and practices sought were present, but the degree to which they are present.

Making that decision will require sophisticated measurement tools that assess "degrees of success," Mr. Ray said.

Mississippi officials will also have to factor in other qualities--levels of parental income and education, for example--that affect the schools' success but are not directly a part of education, those involved in the project note. Mississippi will deal with the problem by using "achievement profiles," with each school having its own goals.

Research Base

Task-force members did not rely exclusively on the work of one researcher in setting up the plan, but looked instead at the range of information known generally as school-effectiveness research. Such research has looked at successful schools and identified the key qualities and practices behind their success.

Mr. Ray, the chairman, said that the task force generally used a mastery-learning model, which operates on the premise that all children can learn if permitted to do so at their own rate.

But as several experts pointed out, there are still many unanswered questions about school effectiveness.

"I suppose the biggest question mark is whether the characteristics of schools and behaviors of teachers that have been currently identified do in fact discriminate between schools and teachers," said Mr. Peurkey of Wisconsin. "Is there a cause-and-effect relationship? There is not conclusive evidence either way. But there is a growing network of research that I think is persuasive enough to justify experiments.''

He noted that some researchers and practitioners think that the "research base is firm enough so that we ought to try to use it."

"But in my opinion, there is not enough evidence to say definitely what are the characteristics of a good school for all children with a variety of outcomes in mind," he said.

"This document really represents a very considerable step," noted Mr. Gold of nie Nonetheless, the process of using the system could be ''horrendously problematic if you tried to do it to the nth degree," he said. Instead, he and other experts urged Mississippi to seek evidence that the policies are in place and that they work.

"Mississippi is somewhat unrealistic about what it takes to do it, and they're impatient," one observer noted, adding that there were many ways that such a system could be "botched up." "They need to be realistic about time, reflection, and investment that it takes to build a solid program. We're concerned that this happens so that this good start can come into reality."

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