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North Dakota prepares to develop plans under sweeping education act

Kirsten Baesler

A new federal education law that dramatically changes North Dakota's approach to education will soon be developed over the next year.

North Dakota School Superintendent Kirsten Baesler and others are gathering this month for a meeting related to the Every Student Succeeds Act, a sweeping reform that replaces No Child Left Behind and promises states more flexibility on student testing and accountability. President Barack Obama signed the act into law Dec. 10.

After Congress spent years trying to rewrite the law, states now have "more control than we've had in education in over a quarter of a century," Baesler said.

At the meeting, the first of several she will be attending throughout the year, she and other education officials will discuss how the law affects federal Impact Aid funding, which supports students from military families. Districts in Grand Forks and Minot, which both have Air Force Bases, will receive this funding.

Baesler is forming a committee of those invested in education to hold listening sessions throughout the state and review the initial interpretation of the federal rules by June. Once the final rules are given to the committee in August, it will begin writing the state plan, Baesler said. Districts will begin phasing in the first parts of the plan in the fall of 2017.

Teacher requirements will also be up for discussion. The new law is silent on whether a teacher needs to be "highly qualified"—a NCLB rule which for secondary teachers requires a major in what NCLB considers a core content area, such as math, among other criteria. Teachers also needed a minor or major for non-core areas such as agriculture or family and consumer science under the NCLB rule.

Janet Welk, executive director of the the state teacher licensing agency, the North Dakota Education Standards and Practices Board, said she had no clue what may happen. The ESPB board will discuss this at its next meeting later this month, she said.

More freedom

The ESSA law means more freedom, Baesler said.

Under No Child Left Behind, which had been in place since 2002, the quality of a school district was only measured by graduation rates and standardized test results in English, math and science. Schools that failed to meet Adequate Yearly Progress test goals received penalties.

Now, states are free to make their own decisions on education and broaden the number of quality measurements without requiring verification from the U.S. Department of Education, Baesler said. It's an opportunity to open up a new way of looking at education, she said.

"We are going to write into our plan all of the things we've been wanting to do—and have been doing—on very meager resources," she said.

Some changes are certain, such as students spending less time—an hour and a half less—on the state assessment. States will also be given more flexibility to shift required high school tests to different grades.

A student test task force through the DPI is considering moving some tests in 11th grade, a test-heavy year, to a different grade, she said.

The law does not reduce the number of tests students are given, she said. State and federal laws state students must take the state assessment in English, math and science once during grades nine through 12 and that juniors take the ACT college entrance exam.

Accountability is still important for the state, she said.

"Now is not the time to backslide into hiding our poor performance or assume we're doing better than we're actually doing," she said.

The law also aims to improve the educational needs of American Indian students. But prior to the law's passage, the DPI had been working to form stronger partnerships between tribal leaders at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation and state education leaders, Baesler said.

Other aspects of current education will remain the same, like teacher and school administrator evaluations.

Jennifer Johnson

Jennifer Johnson is the K-12 education reporter for The Grand Forks Herald.  Contact her if you have any story ideas or tips and visit www.grandforksherald.com. 

(701) 787-6736
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