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Widely Mixed Test Results Leave Some in Ky. Puzzled

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As Kentucky moves toward implementation of its path-breaking system of rewards and sanctions for schools, state students have handed officials a hard-to-read snapshot of the progress of reform.

Results of the second year of a new open-ended assessment system, released last month, produced widely mixed results and, in the case of older students, some troubling declines.

The test of 140,000 4th, 8th, and 12th graders yielded higher scores in the lower grades, however.

The assessment results, which will guide the system of rewards and sanctions that will begin after next year's testing, showed that about 250 of the state's 1,400 schools are on their way to reaching performance targets.

Officials also noted that about 100 schools slipped enough on the latest tests that they could be headed for some state intervention. Under the 1990 education-reform law, schools that fail to show improvement will be subject to such penalties as student transfers and staff dismissals.

Commissioner of Education Thomas C. Boysen said the scores were frustrating to some local officials because they evinced no clear difference between schools that have been deeply involved in reform efforts and others that have made no changes.

"This underscores the importance of having tests reflect the performance of students, and shows that you can miss the point by doing nothing or by doing too much of the wrong thing,'' he said. "The assessment system's influence on schools teaching higher-order thinking skills is really only now beginning to be felt.''

Final results of the assessment--a 10-hour battery of tests taken over several days--will be released early next year, after completion of scoring of a portfolio section demonstrating students' work.

Motivation a Factor

Over all, the test found big gains in 4th-grade reading scores and 8th-grade science performance. Social studies held steady among 4th graders but dropped by 7 percent over last year among 8th graders.

Social-studies scores dropped by 26 percent among 12th graders, who posted declines in each subject area.

Mr. Boysen said the declines in the 12th grade can be attributed to a number of factors. Some observers have noted that the reform program has had more impact on the early grades than on high schools.

Moreover, the commissioner suggested, 12th graders may see little to gain by working hard on the new test.

"Motivation is an issue in the 12th grade,'' he said. "These reforms are being taken seriously and people are honestly trying to improve, but we are up against the wall on high schools.''

Viewed on the state's new scale of ranking student performance, which includes categories ranging from "novice'' for students who demonstrate little understanding to "distinguished'' for children who have mastered a subject, the test results showed no clear trends.

The goal of the reform law is to have all students learning at a "proficient'' level or above within 20 years. Three years into the program, the assessment illustrated the challenge that lies ahead.

Only 7 percent of the state's 4th-grade students performed at a proficient level or above. Similar percentages scored in the top two performance categories in social studies and mathematics.

In science, which proved the toughest subject for Kentucky children, only 1 percent of the 4th graders were proficient or distinguished. Older students did only slightly better.

Math scores, on the other hand, were more encouraging. The tests showed 14 percent of 8th graders and 12 percent of 12th graders scoring in the top two categories.

This year's assessment also included new tests in arts and humanities and in practical living, which covers such areas as health and personal finance. The best scores were turned in by 8th graders, among whom 5 percent are proficient in the arts and 4 percent are proficient in practical living. But no students ranked in the distinguished category in either area.

Mr. Boysen said that educators across much of the state are still adjusting to the new test format, which, he said, stresses "reflective thinking.''

'Nobody Is Doomed'

One district responding to the new tests urged students to read test questions several times, underlining important words or phrases. Before answering, the children were urged to outline their responses in the margin.

A greater emphasis on thinking through questions and developing better writing skills to respond to test questions are major goals of the new tests, which policymakers adopted over multiple-choice assessments.

The early tests, Mr. Boysen said, were meant to alert districts that they have time to reassess themselves.

"Even for the schools that slipped, there is time for them to correct this,'' the commissioner said. "Nobody is doomed to failure.''

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