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Brock Urges Kentucky Lawmakers To Discard State Test

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Kentucky's new schools chief has urged the legislature to scrap the state's controversial essential-skills test and replace it with a nationally normed commercial examination.

In testimony before a joint legislative committee this month, the state superintendent, John Brock, noted that the three-year-old state-developed test has become the target of criticism from local school officials and the press. As a result, he said, it has lost credibility with the public.

A nationally normed test, he argued, would restore public support by making it easier to compare Kentucky students' performance with that of students from other states.

The elected state chief's proposal comes at a time when questions about such commercial tests have drawn the attention of U.S. Education Department officials, who said this month they would issue a "consumer's guide" on the tests. (See Education Week, Feb. 10, 1988.)

Some Kentucky legislators--and members of the state board of education, which met Feb. 12 to discuss the issue--are already arguing that Mr. Brock's proposal goes too far.

While acknowledging that the essential-skills test--mandated for students in all grades--has had problems, they suggested that it also serves an important purpose by identifying student achievement in key subject areas.

"I don't want to get away from some form of testing that would provide us with an assurance that we are teaching the essential skills that we think are important," said Clay Parks, chairman of the state board.

Representative Roger Noe, chairman of the House Education Committee, said lawmakers were likely to compromise on the issue by combining a state-developed skills assessment with a nationally normed test.

A combined test, he said, would enable administrators to assess their instructional programs, and at the same time permit comparisons with students in other states.

"We have to have some method of diagnosing weaknesses in the early grades, or we just lose it," he said.

Incentive Bonuses

The legislature is expected to act on a testing measure next month. Legislation authorizing the testing program expires at the end of the school year.

Meanwhile, Gov. Wallace G. Wilkinson last week proposed more extensive testing as part of an incentive program that would give financial bonuses to schools that demonstrate substantial improvements in achievement.

Such bonuses would be based on assessments that measure a broader range of skills, as well as student attitudes toward learning, according to Jack D. Foster, the Governor's secretary of education.

"Let's make sure the test measures the breadth of student understanding," he said.

But Representative Noe expressed skepticism toward Mr. Wilkinson's proposal.

"My fear is that we're testing students to death," he said. "A test is just a snapshot of how students are doing on that day, not a total evaluation of how they are doing."

"Placing all our eggs in one testing basket is wrong-headed," he said.

Test Under Fire

The Kentucky Essential-Skills Test was mandated by the legislature in 1984 to determine whether students were performing at at least a minimal level of competency in reading and mathematics.

It was later expanded to assess skills in writing, spelling, and library research and reference.

The examination was tied to a remediation program intended to help students who performed below minimal levels. Tight budgets, however, have forced the legislature to fund remediation programs for grades 1 and 2 only.

To establish comparisons with national norms, the state contracted with ctb/McGraw-Hill to include questions from the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills.

But the test has drawn fire from parents, who charge that its scores are inflated, and from district officials, who claim that the test has failed to provide accurate comparisons with students from other states.

"The test does a reasonable job of estimating nationally normed scores for large groups of students," said Ben Oldham, director of research and program evaluation for the Fayette County Public Schools.

"But when it got down to the individual school level," he continued, "the kest didn't do a satisfactory job of estimating the normative skills of students."

As a result, public demands for changes in the test began to grow, according to Robert F. Sexton, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a state advocacy group for public education.

"We were concerned all along that the public was frustrated with the test," he said. "I don't know how much of that was the test, or the way it was used. But we would like to see it improved so the public knows what's going on."

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