News in Brief: A State Capitals Roundup

October 01, 2003 5 min read
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N.M. Funding Vote Too Close to Call

The fate of a New Mexico ballot measure on school funding was still uncertain last week.

Meanwhile, voters in the state approved a proposal on the same Sept. 23 ballot that would allow the governor to appoint a state secretary of education. The state board of education will move into an advisory role.

Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, has formed a 31-member search committee to find the best-qualified candidates for the position, said Pahl Shipley, a spokesman for the governor.

The verdict on the education funding amendment was up in the air, with hundreds of uncounted ballots outstanding. If approved, the measure would add $600 million over 12 years to school financing from the state’s permanent education fund.

A portion of the fund, made up of royalties from leases on public lands, is constitutionally required to go toward K-12 education. Voters were asked to decide whether to increase that share from 4.7 percent to 5.8 percent in increments over the 12-year period.

Officials expect the results of the finance vote in mid-October, Mr. Shipley said.

—Lisa Goldstein

Massachusetts’ Scores Reach Their Highest Level

Student scores on Massachusetts’ controversial state graduation exams are the highest they’ve been in the history of the testing system, which began five years ago.

Results from the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS, released in September by state Commissioner of Education David P. Driscoll and Gov. Mitt Romney, show that 75 percent of 10th graders passed both the mathematics and English exams taken in May, an increase from 69 percent in 2002. All students must pass the MCAS in both subjects in order to graduate.

Eighty-nine percent of 10th graders passed the English exam, an increase from 86 percent last year, and 80 percent passed in math, up from 75 percent last year.

Achievement gaps persist. While 84 percent of white 10th graders passed both exams in May, only 52 percent of African-American students did so. But the scores of minority students have improved. Two years ago, just 37 percent of African-American students passed both exams. Forty-four percent of Hispanic students passed both recent exams, an increase from 29 percent in 2001.

“These scores serve as proof positive that what we are doing is working in all grades, in all subjects, and with students of every ethnicity,” Mr. Driscoll said in a statement announcing the scores. “But while it is encouraging to see that more of our minority students are passing the 10th grade MCAS exam on the first try, I would like to see the percentage continue to rise.”

Despite the improving scores, the state teachers’ unions and other MCAS critics argue that the state assessment has driven many students to leave school early, that it inhibits educators’ ability to teach creatively, and that it has a disproportionate adverse impact on minority students.

—John Gehring

Arizona Revamps Ratings; More Schools Can Be at Top

Recent changes to Arizona’s accountability system will make it easier for schools to achieve the state’s highest ranking, and more difficult for them to fail.

Tom Horne, the state superintendent of public instruction, proposed the revisions to “AZ Learns” to “more accurately reflect the performance of schools based on testing data,” according to a state education department press release.

As a result of the revisions, which were unanimously approved by the state school board Sept. 16, roughly 300 schools in the state will achieve the highest ranking, or “excelling” compared with only three last year.

In addition, 13.5 percent of the state’s public schools will be considered “underperforming.” That’s a significant difference from last year, when 19 percent of Arizona’s schools had that label.

The percentage of students who have made academic gains over the course of a year is given more weight in the new accountability formula, explained Patricia Loughrin, the state’s associate superintendent for research, standards, and accountability.

The change in policy, she said, “is not a lowering of standards or lowering expectations in any way. It is a more realistic [representation] of how schools are performing.”

—Michelle Galley

Following Suit Settlement, Minn. Signs Test Contract

The Minnesota education department signed a $23.7 million student-testing contract this month after a county judge rejected a legal challenge to the winning bid.

The Maple Grove, Minn.-based Data Recognition Corp. filed the lawsuit, arguing that it had submitted a less expensive bid than that of Harcourt Educational Measurement, which won the contract.

Education officials agreed that Data Recognition’s bid was $1.8 million less than the offer from Harcourt, which is based in San Antonio. But the officials said that problems with Data Recognition’s performance in a current five-year testing contract had factored into the department’s decision not to contract with it for a new round of mathematics and reading tests for grades 4, 6, and 8.

Data Recognition was late in shipping testing materials to school districts and made errors in a Spanish translation of a test it provided, among other problems, a department spokesman said.

Dwight Ramey, a lawyer for Data Recognition, said the company is leaving its options open.

Ramsey County District Court Judge William Leary III said the education department had properly exercised its discretionary authority in awarding the contract.

—Darcia Harris Bowman

Bill Would Let Mass. Students Cut Out on Dissections

A bill that would give students in Massachusetts the choice not to dissect real animals has been filed in the legislature.

Rep. Louis L. Kafka, a Democrat, says that for reasons that include religious, moral, and ethical beliefs, students should have the option of showing their knowledge of material without having to dissect animals.

The bill, which has about 20 co-sponsors, would allow students to opt out of dissection exercises without fear of academic penalty. Proponents of the legislation say various alternatives to specimen dissection exist, including “virtual” dissection through computer software. Several districts in Massachusetts already use computer programs that allow for virtual dissection.

While Massachusetts does not require teachers to use dissection in science classes, supporters of the bill say students often fear that they will be penalized if they ask to be excused from dissections.

“There should be some mechanism for these students who for whatever reason choose not to dissect,” Rep. Kafka said.

If the bill receives a favorable hearing before the joint education, arts, and humanities committee, it will go to the House ways and means committee before it receives a consideration from the full House.

—John Gehring


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