Why 20 Missouri School Districts Are Seeking New ‘Innovation Waivers’ to Rethink the Way They Test Students – The 74

Why 20 Missouri School Districts Are Seeking New ‘Innovation Waivers’ to Rethink the Way They Test Students – The 74

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A network of 20 Missouri school districts is asking the state to implement a more responsive assessment system in order to personalize student learning.

The state Board of Education is considering the districts’ proposal to change testing at its Aug. 15 meeting. If approved, it would be the inception of a shift in Missouri’s education system that will “resurrect student engagement,” district leaders say.

The group of schools, part of the Success-Ready Students Network, want to move away from the state’s annual standardized testing to assessments that would be administered multiple times a year. The coalition consists of public school districts and one St. Louis charter school, and includes a mix of rural and urban campuses with a wide range of student performance scores and poverty rates, according to state demographic and assessment data

During a June state board meeting, district leaders argued that the current system doesn’t provide results in time to be effectively used in the classroom. 

The schools want to instead take advantage of a new pilot waiver program created last year that offers exemptions for districts to bypass specific education laws for up to three years. These “innovation waivers” are intended to boost student performance and benefit educators by giving schools the room to implement unique strategies, said Lisa Sireno, assistant commissioner with the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. 

“The state legislature enacted a statute that allowed the school innovation waivers in 2022 and so we’ve been working on what that process might look like,” Sireno told The 74. “The group with our very first innovation waiver request — the Success-Ready Students Network — kind of grew out of a (state) work group that was looking at competency-based education.”

While 20 school districts in the Success-Ready Students Network have agreed to launch new assessments if approved, other schools will join in the future, said Mike Fulton, one of the network’s facilitators. The plan is for a new cohort of districts to use the innovation waivers each school year until the entire state is involved.

Mike Fulton

If approved, districts will be able to administer multiple interim tests, but will still have to give the normal annual standardized test until a federal waiver is approved to get rid of it. Fulton said the Success-Ready Students Network will be working on a federal waiver later this year.

Fulton said the state’s innovation waivers are key to competency-based learning, which allows students to move through education at their own pace as they demonstrate a full understanding of the material.

“The whole proposal is designed to support the participating districts in using personalized, competency-based approaches in their learning design,” Fulton told The 74. “The assessment system was designed to provide feedback to both students, teachers, parents and every stakeholder, on how individual students are progressing, how classrooms and schools are doing and how districts are doing as a whole.”

Jenny Ulrich, superintendent of the Lonedell School District, part of the Success-Ready Students Network, said her teachers are always asking for feedback on what they are doing in the classroom, but assessment results are returned too late to make an effective change for individual students.

Jenny Ulrich

“We are alone out there trying to figure out how we get real-world learning to our kids,” Ulrich told the state board in June. “This work supports educators. It gives them a platform, an opportunity and the data they need to make good instructional design and decisions for their kids.”

Besides lagging results, standardized tests have been criticized around the U.S. for sucking up too much time, being culturally biased and doing little to improve students’ academic outcomes.

Ulrich said instead of the one-time tests, schools will administer tests several times a year and keep results updated online on a district dashboard for teachers to use in real time. The dashboards, which will go live in November, will show a student’s progress in becoming “high school ready” or “college, career and workforce ready.”

“By the end of the 2025-26 school year, it is our aim — our lofty goal — that 100% of our graduates would have an individualized plan,” Ulrich said. “As we reach these goals, all students will be able to declare, ‘I am truly college, career and workplace ready.’”

Fulton said districts will be transitioning to competency-based learning even if the state innovation waivers aren’t approved. Students will progress on evidence of mastery of skills based on state standards, meaning they might move through the K-12 education system faster or slower than their peers.

“That scares people a bit and I understand that,” Fulton said. “That’s a big shift.”

Sireno, the assistant state education commissioner, said the desire to switch Missouri schools to competency-based learning emerged from the learning loss caused by the pandemic. Earlier this year, more than a 100 Missouri districts experienced a drop in their student assessment scores to levels that would typically threaten their state accreditation.

“This will allow students to move at the appropriate pace. So, if some students finish mastery of the content a little bit quicker, if some students take a little bit longer, that’s OK,” Sireno said. “It’s a heavy lift, but it’s important work, and (districts) realize that it can have a real positive impact on student learning.”

Other schools around the nation have been tackling competency-based education as a way to help students recover ground in learning. Idaho, South Carolina, Kansas and Utah are among those that have successfully created competency-based learning systems, according to a 2021 state education department report.

Some states haven’t done as well implementing competency-based education. In 2018, Maine’s Department of Education had to scrap its competency-based learning model several years after it went into effect. The system lacked specifics in things like proficiency and grading, which also sparked parent backlash.

This is a common failure in putting the approach into practice, according to the Missouri education department’s 2021 report. 

“Researchers attribute negative outcomes to schools that implemented (competency-based learning) without clear definitions and expectations, as well as uneven implementation,” the report says. 

When Missouri’s innovation waiver plan was unveiled in June, the entire State Board of Education voiced support for it.

“It is a gift to the students, the parents and families in Missouri, and I would say nationwide,” said Charles Shields, board president. “Others will learn from us nationwide.”

Vice President Carol Hallquist said she believed it will “change the face of education” in Missouri.

Fulton, of the Success-Ready Students Network, said he hasn’t heard from any stakeholders warning against the use of innovation waivers or the switch to competency-based learning, but there is some wariness from the state department about using a model that hasn’t been tested. 

“I think we’re all going at this cautiously. Research is going to sit at the core of this,” he said. “But you have to be willing to be entrepreneurial and innovative and that’s what I think these districts are being asked to do. We need more of that in public education.”

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