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Departure From Uniform Standards A Concern Of Some Arkansas Education Leaders

Sarah Whites-Koditschek / Arkansas Public Media

A revised set of standards for accrediting Arkansas public schools is scheduled to be considered Tuesday afternoon by the Administrative Rules and Regulations Subcommittee of the Arkansas Legislative Council. 

The changes were unanimously approved May 30 by the Arkansas Board of Education, despite concerns from some like board Chairman Jay Barth who worry the new rules could be too much of a departure from a uniform set of standards.

Meanwhile, advocates say the changes would make the accreditation process simpler for districts that are struggling financially while making use of evolving technologies, like the offering of online classes.

The 38 courses required would be broad subjects like math, social studies and English. Certain classes, like journalism, that have a low percentage of students enrolled could instead be offered online. Band, drama and other arts programs would not be required.

Barth ultimately supports the changes despite the suggestion that standards were being watered down. He says the board can study the impacts after the changes are implemented.

"I think we need to be persistent in continuing to ask questions about whether adequacy and equity are fully happening across the state. That was my only worry. I was reassured to a good degree about the coursework in that every year the state board will look at the list of courses that are required to be part of the 38 that are offered," Barth said.

The new standards also change some limits on class sizes and graduation requirements. However, some districts would be allowed to operate without specific state standards.

"I think that there is certainly tremendous value in flexibility, allowing more innovation [and] more ability to adjust to changing times and changing situations around the state. That said, I think it’s potentially worrysome if we start to have a great deal of variation around the state in terms of what the educational experience that’s offered is."

Stacy Smith, director of curriculum and instruction at the state Department of Education, said at last month's hearing that the new standards would reduce the burden for districts to offer courses that they don't have teachers for. She told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that staying with existing standards, which were put in place in the 1980s, could put districts at risk of being put on probation.