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Minn. District Scraps O.B.E. Experiment Seen as a Model

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One of Minnesota's largest school districts has ended its three-year experiment with outcomes-based education, citing intense pressure from parents who criticized the schools' grading and testing practices.

The Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan school board last week accepted the advice of a local task force and removed most elements of the program, which some considered a model for other districts in the state.

School systems throughout Minnesota are experimenting with the principles of O.B.E. or other standards-setting approaches, particularly as the state moves to put in place new performance-based graduation requirements.

But both state and local efforts to define what students should know and be able to do have met with public skepticism.

In April, the Minnesota House approved a one-year delay of the state's graduation rule, which was slated to go into effect this year, and placed new conditions on final approval of its content. (See Education Week, April 27, 1994.)

The requirements were revised several times after citizens who attended statewide public hearings criticized them for being too vague and, in some cases, not demanding enough.

In Rosemount, most of the criticism of O.B.E. was focused on practices in the high schools, where parents said some students were held back by peers' being given multiple chances to learn material. In addition, they said the district's grading policy was hindering students' chances for college admission.

"Some of the concepts of O.B.E. are great, but when you've got the public against you--and some of the things were done wrong--you've got to change,'' said Donald Westerhausen, the president of the school board.

Reforms of curriculum and assessment that make so-called student outcomes the basis for graduation have provoked increasingly sharp reaction in states and districts nationwide. (See related story, page 21.)

'Inconsistent' Policy

The Rosemount district began applying the concepts of O.B.E. about three years ago, after the state board of education directed schools to begin setting standards that would bring them in line with the graduation requirements under development.

Although the state later made local efforts optional, the district--one of 13 pilot sites for the graduation rule--continued to implement the new policies.

The plan, however, faced increasing criticism from parents.

In a bid to address such concerns, Superintendent John T. Haro, who assumed his post last summer, set up a 26-member task force over the winter to study the issue.

The parents, teachers, and school officials on the panel found that the district's O.B.E. policies were inconsistent and had been adopted without regard to local opinion.

The superintendent supported the board's decision to remove the program from the 24,000-student district, which is the fourth-largest and fastest-growing system in the state.

"I believe that the parameters and guidelines in the recommendations will result in consistent, positive educational practices throughout the district without hindering the creativity and dedication of our teachers,'' Mr. Haro said in a statement.

Parents, however, appeared to be the main force behind the policy change. Many claimed that the district's spotty implementation process was the primary reason O.B.E. was ineffective.

"This is a Band-Aid that's supposed to address problems and hasn't,'' said Georgianne Ginder, a parent who served on the task force. "There was a lack of consistency, a lack of motivation'' in the schools.

Although some teachers were supportive of the concepts, union officials acknowledged that the experiment was not proceeding as smoothly as it could have.

"The philosophy is great: Every student should be able to achieve a certain standard,'' said Daryl Schmidt, the president of the Dakota County United Educators. "But there was no standardization of O.B.E. practices--whatever they are--because they're kind of gray.''

'Natural Part of Process'

Critics of the plan pointed to the grading and testing procedures as proof of the experiment's failure.

Under the new grading system, secondary school students were awarded an A, B, or incomplete. Students who earned imcompletes were retested until they improved.

Ms. Ginder said the policy was not stringent enough and was likely to keep some students from getting into college. Her survey of 80 institutions found that all but two had "negative responses'' to the new assessments, said Ms. Ginder, who said she explained the grading policy to college-admissions officers.

Although the task force pointed out that "nothing in the district's programs should encourage a student to fail,'' it added that school officials should recognize that "failure is a normal, natural part of the learning process.''

The practice of allowing students to take tests an unlimited number of times also came under fire from the task force.

Parents and others insisted that it was lowering student motivation and forcing some students to wait for classmates who struggled with difficult material.

The board accepted the panel's suggestion that retesting only be allowed once, except in special situations.

Mr. Schmidt said that the policy was successful in some schools but that "teachers realistically cannot have a class in four or five places at one time without any help.''

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