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Published in Print: April 1, 2009, as Kentucky Tests Tied to Tougher Standards
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Kentucky Tests Tied to Tougher Standards

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Kentucky lawmakers will overhaul its K-12 assessment system, putting the Bluegrass State in the spotlight on testing issues—and possibly making it a national leader on the issue once again.

The new system will create a series of tests aligned to new standards that are to be internationally benchmarked and designed to ensure students are prepared to enter the workforce or go to college.

It also will add a norm-referenced test to give parents and policymakers a measure of how individual students are performing against the national average. And it will drop the state’s writing portfolio, heeding complaints from educators and parents that the portfolio took too much time away from instruction.

The state legislature overwhelming approved a bill enacting the changes this month, and Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, signed the bill into the law last week.

“This will be brand-new for Kentucky,” said Ken Draut, the state’s associate commissioner for assessment and accountability. “This is the next generation of our assessment/accountability system being born.”

Kentucky has been seen as a bellwether on testing and accountability since 1990, when the legislature restructured the state’s education system in response to a 1989 Kentucky Supreme Court decision saying the school system was unconstitutional. In the 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act, Kentucky became the first state to set academic standards, write tests to measure students’ progress toward them, and hold schools accountable for ensuring students are proficient in them.

Activity Elsewhere

The rewriting of Kentucky’s assessment system comes as other states are considering major changes to their testing programs.

Washington state Superintendent Randy Dorn has unveiled a new testing program that would reduce testing time, publish test scores faster, and rely more on technology. The changes would fulfill a promise he made during his election campaign last year to overhaul the Washington Assessment of Student Learning.

In Texas, former Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff, a Republican who helped design the state’s testing program as a state senator in the 1990s, and other state leaders are urging lawmakers to reduce the state’s reliance on standardized, multiple-choice tests to make accountability decisions.

The changes are a sign that states are responding to calls to improve the quality of their tests, expand the uses of them, and reduce the time dedicated to testing, said Stanley Rabinowitz, the senior program director for assessment and standards development for WestEd, a San Francisco-based regional laboratory providing services to states.

“Everything goes in waves,” he said. “The wave this time will be on the need to prove your standards have been properly benchmarked, rigor-wise.”

States also are under pressure to reduce the amount of time dedicated to testing and to deliver test results that help inform teachers’ instructional decisions, said Mr. Rabinowitz, whose center at WestEd designs state tests, including Kentucky’s.

Officials also are facing pressure to measure whether students have the critical thinking and other skills needed to succeed after graduation, even as states continue to track whether students know specific content, said Roger Sampson, the president of the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based clearinghouse of information about state policy.

“It shouldn’t be: Do we do 21st-century skills or content?” he said. “It’s got to be both.”

Accountability Changes

In Kentucky, the new testing system is scheduled to be ready for use in the 2011-12 school year. Until then, the state is to discontinue delivering school-level accountability reports based on all of the subjects in the Kentucky assessment system.

While the new testing is being built, the state will continue to report accountability results based on reading and mathematics scores to comply with the 7-year-old No Child Left Behind Act. The NCLB law requires states to assess student performance in those subjects in grades 3-8 and once in high school and determine whether states are making adequate yearly progress toward all students becoming proficient in reading and math by the end of the 2013-14 school year.

The state intends to continue to give its tests in science, social studies, and writing. It also plans to continue to publicly report schools’ scores but not include them in any accountability system.

Longtime advocates of the state’s accountability rules are concerned that parents and community members won’t be getting an easy-to-understand report on how specific schools are doing.

“We’ve always been really pleased that Kentucky was willing to [hold schools accountable for] the whole curriculum,” said Robert F. Sexton, the executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a Lexington, Ky.-based group of community activists that has been the leading supporter of the state’s 20-year-old effort to improve its schools. With accountability now to be limited to reading and math, Mr. Sexton said he fears teachers will focus narrowly on those subjects and slight other subjects.

But the absence of accountability in the short term won’t change practice, said one school superintendent.

“We’re going to ensure that every child gets a total education, regardless of whether the area is assessed or not,” said Jerry Ralston, the superintendent of the 4,200-student Barren County schools.

New Beginning

As they start over almost 20 years after Kentucky’s groundbreaking accountability law, officials first will rewrite the academic standards, which Mr. Draut of the state education department characterized as “very wide and shallow.” The goal is for the new standards to be “deeper, fewer, and clearer,” he said.

“That’s what will make the assessments fundamentally different from what we had before,” Mr. Draut said.

Under the bill, starting in the 2009-10 school year, Kentucky will add a new norm-referenced test and continue the state’s existing testing system, except for the writing portfolios.

A new battery of tests will be ready for the 2011-12 school year. Those news tests will be aligned to the new standards.

The state’s board of education plans to design a new accountability system to match the state tests.

Vol. 28, Issue 27, Pages 18,22

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