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Debate Over 'Outcomes' System in Kan. To Get Airing

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A public furor in Kansas over a new school-accreditation system has prompted lawmakers to hold an unprecedented series of public hearings to consider whether to reverse a decision to incorporate the benchmarks into the state's school-finance law.

The controversy centers on Quality Performance Accreditation, an elaborate system of standards designed by the state board of education to evaluate the performance of individual schools on 10 learning outcomes.

The Q.P.A. program was written into law last year by the legislature when it approved a radical reworking of the school-funding system, which itself has stirred up vehement opposition in parts of the state. (See Education Week, June 3, 1992.)

Educators and many legislators argue that while the new accreditation system still needs fine-tuning, it represents an important change in the way the state holds schools accountable for educating children.

But critics contend that the new assessments range too far afield from the basics of education, by testing--and in some cases shaping--students' attitudes and beliefs.

Those involved in the controversy describe the debate as part of a much larger issue.

"The role of schools--that's what a lot of the controversy about Q.P.A. is about,'' said Mark Tallman, a lobbyist for the Kansas School Boards Association.

A Question of Values

Backers of the Q.P.A. portray the movement against the program as led by religious conservatives intent on preventing the schools from imposing "humanist values'' on children.

But critics of the Q.P.A. maintain that their base of support extends well beyond fundamentalist voters.

Rep. Darlene Cornfield, a Republican who has worked with critics of the Q.P.A., argues that the majority of parents who oppose the program simply are dubious that the new assessment system is worth the added expense.

Many believe that similar outcome-based programs in other states have failed to produce measurable results, Ms. Cornfield explained.

"They're concerned that if it's not working anywhere else, why do we want to use it?'' she asked.

A current proposal in Pennsylvania to establish a set of learner outcomes for student graduation has also stirred heated opposition.

Kenda Bartlett, a legislative liaison for Concerned Women for America of Kansas, added that her organization feels that the Q.P.A. could be modified to make it palatable to the majority of parents by concentrating on academic subjects.

While schools have in the past taught such values as self-respect and tolerance, Ms. Bartlett noted, "we have never before assessed them as part of a child's portfolio.''

But Sen. Timothy Emert, who served as the state board's chairman before being elected to the legislature as a Republican last fall, said that many of the questions about attitudes--for example, concerning students' feelings about reading--are designed to help the state track student patterns.

Mr. Emert added that the Q.P.A. is unlike most other outcome-based programs because it measures how individual schools, rather than students or districts, are doing.

A 'Sleeper Issue'

The state board adopted the Q.P.A. in 1991 to little fanfare.

Implementation was proceeding quietly until late in last year's fractious legislative session, as lawmakers struggled though an acrimonious debate over school finance.

In order to pass the new law, which shifted the burden of collecting and disbursing property taxes from school districts to the state, Democrats yielded to Republican demands to make schools more accountable by adding the board's standards.

Still, the debate over the new system smoldered through last fall's elections, even as groups opposed to the new system held community meetings across the state.

With the opening of the 1993 legislative session and the return of House control to the G.O.P after a brief hiatus in Democratic hands, however, the Q.P.A. suddenly became a cause celebre, prompting one lawmaker to describe it as "the sleeper issue'' of the session.

More hearings have been held on the Q.P.A. than were held last year on the finance measure, even though no bills to repeal or modify the program had been introduced as of last week.

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