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The Comeback State

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One of the nation's most closely watched education reform experiments--the statewide overhaul of the Kentucky schools, is beginning to bear fruit, according to officials in that state.

Kentucky's 4th, 8th, and 12th graders demonstrated what the officials called "dramatic improvement'' on the 1993-94 version of the state's annual assessments. 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 Boysen, the state commissioner of education. "The hard work of our teachers is paying off, and the beneficiaries are our children.''

But 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 across five subjects--math, reading, science, social studies, and writing--rose from 26.4 points in 1993 to 33.2 points in 1994. For grade 8, the index rose from 27.6 to 33.7. And for grade 12, it rose from 27.9 to 38.4, a 10.5-point gain.

"It's encouraging, but I think we have to be real cautious and look at the long run,'' said Robert Sexton, 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 changed how schools in the state are organized and governed and the content of instruction. The act also created a new assessment system to measure what students know and can do and how well they can apply what they know. The system includes writing and math portfolios, real-life problems that students solve individually and in groups, 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.

January will be a crucial month for another reason, as well. For the first time, Kentucky educators will be eligible for cash rewards--or negative consequences--based on their schools' performance in a number of categories, including student test results and rates of attendance and retention.

Schools that exceed their two-year improvement goal by one point will earn cash rewards that certified staff members can use as they see fit. Schools whose scores decline will receive extra help.

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