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Published in Print: February 17, 1999, as Ky. District Questions Fairness of Accountability Proposals

Ky. District Questions Fairness of Accountability Proposals

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A Kentucky district's objection to new statewide accountability policies now being drafted has highlighted the difficult balance states must strike in efforts to make schools responsible for performance.

Officials from the Jefferson County district, which includes Louisville, have proposed taking into account such factors as poverty and mobility when designing the new testing and accountability program. Yet state officials and others counter that such a shift could reinforce low expectations for some students and some schools.

Under Kentucky's proposed new system, which is scheduled to take effect in the 2000-01 school year, low-performing schools will need to make more progress than higher-achieving ones if they are to meet the state's goal for all schools: a score of 100 on a scale of 140 by 2014.

And officials in the state's largest district contend that's not fair to schools with high concentrations of poor students, special education students, or children with limited English proficiency, especially when performance is improving.

"Progress shouldn't be discounted," said Robert Rodosky, the district's executive director of accountability, research, and planning. "Progress should be recognized no matter what it is."

The district's position illustrates the persistent problem schools face when they are challenged with educating students who come from homes with few resources. About 58 percent of Jefferson County's elementary students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches. The limited-English-proficient population in the 92,000-student system has soared in recent years, Mr. Rodosky said--from a couple hundred about five years ago to more than 1,000.

During a Jan. 29 public hearing before the state board of education, Ken Draut, the testing coordinator for the district, presented a proposal that essentially asks that lower-performing schools not be expected to increase their scores any more than higher-performing schools.

Mr. Rodosky added that the state has set an "arbitrary" target, and that because the standards are high, any progress toward those goals should be noted.

'A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy'

But some accountability experts, including state officials, interpret the proposal to mean that district officials are throwing up their hands in defeat. "If you set low expectations for any group of kids, based on any characteristic, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy," said Jim Parks, a spokesman for the Kentucky Department of Education.

He noted that the state board had rejected similar suggestions in previous years. And during its meeting last week, the board, in response to the district's idea, said that altering the system to accommodate certain groups of students would violate the reform law, which requires schools to expect all students to achieve at high levels.

The district's proposal also didn't sit well with the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, a New York City philanthropy that has been financing middle school reform efforts in Jefferson County for several years.

"Progress is good, but progress is not the goal," said Hayes Mizell, the director of the program for student achievement at the foundation. "The goal is kids that can perform at much higher levels."

Instead of discussing whether an accountability system is fair, Mr. Mizell said, districts should be focusing on what they can do differently to help students meet high standards. "For low-performing kids," he said, "it's not rocket science that if you continue to educate them in the same way that you've always educated them, there's not going to be any great improvement."

Revamping the System

Kentucky has attracted national attention from policymakers since 1990, when the legislature approved a drastic overhaul of its education system that included monetary awards for successful schools and help from "distinguished educators" for those considered to be in crisis.

The state ran into trouble, though, with its testing program--the Kentucky Instructional Results Information System. Critics said the tests were too costly and too unreliable. Because of scoring errors, the state in 1997 fired the company that ran the testing system. And more than a 100 schools have been investigated for cheating.

So last year, lawmakers called for a new test, the Commonwealth Accountability Testing System. The cats assessment is scheduled to be given for the first time this spring. The rules by which the education department will reward or penalize schools are still being drafted and are scheduled to be implemented during the 2000-01 school year.

And schools in Jefferson County almost certainly won't be the only ones missing the mark. Using seven years of statewide testing data, district administrators have calculated that in just six to eight years, about 70 percent of the schools in the state "will be failing under the rules [state officials] are proposing," Mr. Rodosky said.

The danger of such a system, he added, is that it "plays into the hands of the opponents of public schools."

Others believe it's too early to be talking about making adjustments.

"My position is that it's better to revisit the goal after 10 years than to set a low one now," said Robert F. Sexton, the executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a Lexington, Ky.-based citizens' group that has supported the state's reform efforts.

Mr. Rodosky added that Jefferson County's request has been misunderstood as a plea for special treatment. "We aren't asking for a different standard," he said. "We're asking for a realistic consideration."

Vol. 18, Issue 23, Page 5

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