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In Policy Shift, Nebraska Advances State Assessment Plan

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Absolute local control would no longer be the mantra of Nebraska schools, under an education bill moving through the legislature this session.

The three-tiered accountability proposal would establish statewide tests, a statewide financial-reporting system, and an incentive program designed to reward districts that meet certain quality standards.

If the measure passes, insiders there say, schools in the Cornhusker State will never be the same.

John D. Clark, the spokesman for the state education department, said that the bill and academic standards the state school board is hammering out this year represent "a major, major step for a state like Nebraska."

"For the first time, this [bill] would give all 656 school districts in the state the opportunity to say, 'Well, here's where we are, and here's how we compare,'" he said. He added that greater state oversight seems a natural outcome of the school finance measure lawmakers approved last summer.

State at a Glance: Nebraska

Population: 1.6 million
Governor: Gov. Ben Nelson, D
State superintendent: Douglas D. Christensen
Number of K-12 students: 291,000
Number of K-12 public schools: 1333
Fiscal 97-98 K-12 budget: $591 million

That law drastically changed how school aid is distributed, capping property-tax revenues in the highest tax districts and adding $128 million in additional state aid. Many Nebraska school districts came out ahead under the school finance bill, but some schools, especially those in the state's most sparsely populated rural school districts, lost money in the exchange. ("Neb. Lawmakers Back New Funding Formula, Increased Aid," June 11, 1997.)

Although the school finance bill has been the source of much debate since its passage, education groups have come out in force in support of this session's quality education measure.

The proposal would be "a giant step for Nebraska," said Jerry L. Sellentin, the executive director of the Nebraska Council of School Administrators. "As Nebraska implements standards, this accountability system will be a major way of determining if schools are helping students acquire the skills and knowledge they need."

New Oversight

The plan, sponsored by state Sen. Ardyce L. Bohlke, the chairwoman of the unicameral, nonpartisan legislature's education committee, was initially approved 32-3 by the legislature March 6. Lawmakers voted 25-2 March 18 to advance the bill to a final reading.

"This [bill] is a sign of the times across the country," Ms. Bohlke said in an interview last week. "We dealt with school finance last year, and we're ready to focus on school quality--what it is, how to measure it and fund it."

Under the terms of the proposed Quality Education Accountability Act, as the bill is known, the state board would have to create and oversee tests that gauge the academic performance of the state's 4th through 12th graders, starting in the 2000-01 school year.

The tests, based on reading and mathematics standards the board adopted this winter and the science and social studies standards it is scheduled to consider this spring, would be designed so that school leaders could compare overall achievement of students on a statewide and national basis, as well as measure students' individual performance. The bill would require the state to pay for the tests, which, according to state estimates, could run as much as $4.5 million a year.

In addition, the measure would require the state board to provide districts with a computerized financial-reporting system by the 1999-2000 school year.

Finally, beginning in 1998-99, the bill would provide eligible schools with $50-per-student incentive payments. To receive the money, schools would be required to adopt state academic standards, set up alternative education programs for expelled students, institute a state-approved program for gifted students, and have at least 60 percent of graduating seniors taking college-entrance exams and scoring above the statewide average on those exams.

In an interview, John Mackiel, the superintendent of the 45,000-student Omaha school system, said the initiative would "bring uniformity to Nebraska schools."

"For the first time, schools here would be on the same page, knowing what they're spending and what they're achieving," he said.

Even rural schools, traditionally the state's most ardent defenders of local control, have come out to fight for the measure.

M.L. Smith, the superintendent of the 219-student Odell district and the legislative chairman for the Nebraska Rural Community Schools Association, which represents 200 of the state's smallest districts, said his organization likes the flexibility of the plan and the state funding provided to meet new standards.

"Rural Nebraska has always been about quality education," he said. "And this bill is flexible enough that local school districts will still have control."

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  • Read an update on the status of the Quality Education Accountability Act, and details of many of the bill's provisions, from the Nebraska legislature's Web site.
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