New law designed to increase school accountability

A new accountability law for schools will modify how schools in the state measure the performance of students and will “rate” schools based on how students perform. Senate file 57 was approved by the legislature in the most recent session and signed into law by the governor following the session. The 42-page law called “The Wyoming Accountability in Education Act” or “Enrolled Act No. 65,” modifies how schools across the state will measure and report student progress to the state and will rate schools based on their ability to keep in step with state and federal requirements for student performance.

“A couple of years ago, we were getting many reports that Hathaway students were not keeping their scholarships because they could not pass college level courses and had to drop credit hours and go into remedial courses that did not qualify for the required amount of credits to keep the scholarship,” said Rep. Elaine Harvey of Lovell.  “We felt that Wyoming schools could do better at preparing kids to be ready for college when they got there.  They were awarding diplomas that said the student successfully completed the required courses to meet the school’s standards, yet the students were floundering when they got to college.”

Four “major” areas are addressed in the new law including how students are tested, how results of those tests are reported, how principals and teachers are evaluated and how those evaluations are reported to the state, explained Big Horn County School District No. 2 Supt. Dan Coe. The law not only changes how students will be assessed, but will put schools under pressure to perform in that schools will be rated directly based on how their students perform.

One of the biggest changes is that high school juniors and seniors will be required to take the ACT test in place of the state’s standardized test known as PAWS. The state may even add some questions of its own to the test to be sure students are meeting both state and national standards. The change is expected to take place in the 2012-13 school year. Currently ACT is a voluntary test used primarily as a college entrance exam and to evaluate the level of Hathaway scholarships students receive for college.

The big difference is that the information will be provided to the state irrespective of the student’s plans to attend college and will be used by the state to rate the school’s performance.

“We’ve been doing student assessments forever,” said Coe. “We’ve had state assessments (PAWS) for quite a while. What’s different is that starting next year ACT will replace PAWS for 11th graders.”

Teachers and principals may also feel the pressure since information from their individual evaluations will also be examined by the state and will be somehow incorporated into the process that is used to evaluate schools.

According to Coe, the type of evaluation required is “nothing new” for his district, where a very rigorous and detailed system of evaluations has already been implemented. Most of the changes are in how the information will be reported to the state and how the information will be used by the state to evaluate schools.

“There is nothing new in the law in that principal and teacher evaluations must be tied to student performance, but it changes some of the requirements of districts in how they report that information to the state,” said Coe.

The law also focuses on the Wyoming content standards, again nothing new, according to Coe, who said it only changes how the information is reported to the state and used to evaluate schools.

Probably the biggest change of all is that schools will be subjected to a rating system that correlates directly to student performance. According to Harvey the legislature has appointed a select committee on school accountability to take on the task of designing a workable system or formula to rate the schools. The idea is to make children better prepared for college when they leave high school, she said. Eventually this information will be made available to the public.

“This area (school performance ratings) is really new,” explained Coe. “The focus is on school performance ratings. They (the legislature) say they are going to develop a process or some type of formula where there will be a score for each school in Wyoming and that score will be used on a tiered level to determine if the school is exceeding expectations, meeting expectations, partially meeting expectations or not meeting expectations.”

Coe expects that students will feel the difference in the testing in that the ACT is a “higher stakes” test. According to Coe, whether the information will be used to affect the student’s eligibility for graduation has not been determined yet, but “there is that possibility.”

Coe noted that legislators continually reminded the schools during the discussion of the new law that this is only the “first phase” of the process and indicated they will continue to study the methods used to make schools accountable for student achievement and plan to revisit the issue and may even add more requirements in the next legislative session.

By Patti Carpenter