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'Dramatic' Rise in Ky. Test Scores Linked to Reforms

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One of the most closely watched experiments in school reform is beginning to bear fruit, Kentucky officials said last week.

Kentucky's 4th, 8th, and 12th graders demonstrated "dramatic improvement" on the 1993-94 version of the state's annual assessments, state officials said. In all grades, the percentage of students performing at or above the proficient level in mathematics, reading, science, and social studies increased from the previous year.

In reading, for instance, the percentage of 4th graders scoring at the proficient level shot up from 7 percent to 12 percent. At grade 12, the figure rose from 5 percent to 14 percent.

"This significant improvement in the scores is a clear indication that Kentucky's education-reform effort is working," said Thomas C. Boysen, the state commissioner of education. "The hard work of our teachers is paying off, and the beneficiaries are our children."

But Mr. Boysen cautioned that the state is far from reaching the performance standards set by Kentucky teachers. Students' performance is rated on four levels: novice, apprentice, proficient, and distinguished. About 85 percent of the youngsters participating in the assessments are still performing at the two lowest levels.

Statewide achievement in each content area is rated on a scale of zero to 140; a rating of 100 would mean virtually all students were scoring at the proficient level.

In grade 4, the average of the scores across five subjects--math, reading, science, social studies, and writing--rose from 26.4 points in 1993 to 33.2 points in 1994. At grade 8, it rose from 27.6 points to 33.7. At grade 12, the overall index rose from 27.9 points in 1993 to 38.4, a 10.5 point gain.

'Real Cautious'

"It's encouraging but I think we have to be real cautious and look at the long run," said Robert F. Sexton, the executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a citizens' group that monitors the progress of school reform in the state. "I would hope temporarily this would show people who are frustrated about the so-called basics that we are making progress."

The Kentucky Education Reform Act is now entering its fifth year. It includes changes in how schools are organized and governed and the content of instruction.

The act also created a new program to measure what students know and can do and how well they can apply what they know. The assessment system includes writing and math portfolios, performance tasks in which students solve real-life problems in groups and individually, and multiple-choice and open-ended questions.

The results released last week were based on pupils' responses to open-ended questions in math, reading, science, and social studies. The state will release results from the performance tasks in January.

But officials also chose to release state-level findings from the writing portfolios now because the scores of 8th and 12th graders have remained relatively flat over the past two years.

"To wait until January we thought was not a wise thing to do," said Ed Reidy, who is in charge of the testing system. "It's important that people know what the data say so we can begin to ask some hard questions."

Rewards and Sanctions

January will also be a crucial time for Kentucky educators. For the first time, they will be eligible for cash rewards--or negative consequences--based on their schools' performance.

Each school's score is determined by how well its students do on the statewide testing system and by its attendance, retention, dropout, and transition rates.

Schools received a baseline score in 1992. Those that exceed their two-year improvement goal by 1 point will earn cash rewards that the certified staff members can use as they see fit. Schools whose scores decline will receive help.

State officials said it is too soon to tell how many schools will be eligible for the rewards. The data released last week count for 57 percent of a school's total score.

"We think it's a little dangerous to be making official estimates of what might happen," said Mr. Reidy. "However, when you look at the huge score gains and the variation among schools, it's very clear that a lot of schools will avoid sanctions of any sort."

The stiffest sanctions--for schools whose scores fall 5 points or more below the 1992 baseline--have been delayed until 1996. Such schools would be labeled "schools in crisis." Outside educators would be sent in to manage them and their students could choose to attend other schools.

Marnel Moormon, the president of the Kentucky Education Association, said last week that both the rewards and sanctions should be delayed until the assessment instruments have been proved valid and reliable.

But many high schools were undoubtedly relieved to see that 12th graders had made substantial gains in math, reading, science, and social studies, after those scores declined from 1991-92 to 1992-93.

Educators have complained that high school seniors do not have much motivation to do well on the exams, which are given each spring. Lawmakers last year agreed to shift the tests from grade 12 to grade 11.

Mr. Reidy attributed the 12th graders' improvements on the open-ended questions, in part, to "a big change in motivation."

"Our principals and our teachers made it quite clear to kids that this was something important, and the norms in the school changed so that people got the message," he said. "But another part of the gain is real change in achievement."

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