Superintendent's Corner

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Seizing The Opportunity To Improve ND Education
By Kirsten Baesler

BISMARCK, N.D. – It’s late August, and North Dakota schools have begun a new season of learning. As I write this, almost all of our communities have reopened their school doors. It’s an exciting time, and a wonderful opportunity to talk about some of the significant changes that are taking place in our schools.

Our public school math and English teachers will be using new learning standards, which were written by two separate groups of North Dakota math and English instructors over 11 months of work. These standards provide guideposts for what our students should know, and be able to do, in each grade. They are the fruit of a process that included extensive reviews and opportunities for public comment. They are truly North Dakota standards, written by North Dakota teachers.

With new standards, we also need new tests to measure our students’ progress. For the last three years, we have been using math and English assessments developed by a group of states called the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. Searching for a new test provider is a lengthy and complex process, and we hope to announce a new test provider in September. Our students will be taking these new math and English tests in the spring.

We at NDDPI have also responded to concerns about the heavy testing load borne by our high school juniors. In the past they have taken state assessments in math, English and science, as well as the ACT, which is used to determine eligibility for state scholarship aid. In the coming school year, the math and English assessments will be given to our high school sophomores, instead of our juniors. I have not heard any objections from juniors to this change!

This fall, our schools will also be experiencing the dawn of a new law called the Every Student Succeeds Act. For more than a year, a committee made up of teachers, school administrators, parents and representatives of education stakeholder groups has been drafting a plan for implementing ESSA in North Dakota. The plan itself, and a trove of details about our committee’s work, is posted on the Department of Public Instruction’s website.

Our plan encourages classroom innovation, a concept that our North Dakota Legislature strongly supported during its 2017 session. It demands academic improvement from all schools, including the ones that already are doing well. It offers stronger opportunities for teachers and administrators to sharpen their skills, which will help to improve student learning.

Our plan sets out a framework for making a broad range of information about our schools, from test results to finances, much more available and understandable to the parents and school district patrons who pay the bills. This is at the core of the educational accountability that North Dakotans demand and deserve.

We at NDDPI want to encourage and assist our schools as they work to continuously improve the instruction of our students. Our “Choice Ready” initiative has ambitious goals for ensuring that all of our North Dakota high school graduates are academically ready to begin a career, join the military, or go on to college without having to take any remedial course work.

To bolster these efforts, the NDDPI has begun the process of drafting a collaborative, shared strategic vision for K-12 education to improve student achievement across our state.

More than 30 education stakeholders, including parents, teachers, school administrators, legislators and students, have been interviewed to identify the strengths of North Dakota’s education system and identify ways to improve. We are forming a steering committee and will be holding regional public meetings as we begin the task of drawing up a strategic plan.

We have many strengths: Strong public support for education, collaboration among education groups, and a corps of dedicated, quality educators. But stakeholders have concerns about public access to school performance data, the availability of advanced coursework for all students, and fragmentation of duties among state education agencies, among other issues.

What do new English and math standards, a new test, the Every Student Succeeds Act, a strategic plan, and our “Choice Ready” initiative all have in common? At the end of the day, their purpose is to strengthen the education of our students; to make them better prepared for a challenging future; and to make our education system more accountable to the students, parents and taxpayers that it serves.