Ambitious Student-Assessment System Advances

By Robert Rothman — May 08, 1991 6 min read

Kentucky school officials have solicited bids for a $3.5-million contract to operate perhaps the most ambitious student-assessment program in the country.

The new system, mandated by the state’s landmark school-reform law, will by the time it is fully implemented in the 1995-96 school year be the first statewide assessment system that is completely performance-based.

In addition to measuring students’ abilities to complete tasks, rather than answer multiple-choice questions, the testing system is also expected to rely heavily on teachers’ evaluations of student performance.

Eventually, the results of the system will be used to reward high-performing schools and punish those with low levels of performance.

Jack D. Foster, secretary of the state education and humanities cabinet, called the new system “a big shift.”

“This is a move toward much more confidence in the judgments teachers make about student performance, and less emphasis on a one-time, external test that will never capture everything, even in the best of all worlds, that we want to know about what children are learning,” Mr. Foster said.

In adopting the specifications for the contract last month, however, the state board for elementary and secondary education added a requirement that some fear could possibly undermine the system.

Rejecting a plea by a national team of consultants that drew up the specifications, the board voted to require the interim assessment sys4tem--which will be in place until the new system is completely developed--to include a measure enabling officials to compare Kentucky students’ performance with that of students from other states.

The consultants had argued that such comparisons would force the state to rely on traditional tests, rather than move directly to the new measures of student performance.

But Commissioner of Education Thomas C. Boysen said the comparisons would “do a favor to students” by showing how they are faring. At the same time, he added, the comparisons will show the legislature--which has provided a massive infusion of new state money for the schools--if their “investment” is paying off in higher student achievement.

Grant Wiggins, a member of the consulting team, acknowledged that the decision was Mr. Boysen’s and the board’s to make, and added that he hoped the move would not deter the state from its ambitious plans.

“I don’t think it’s the end of the world,” said Mr. Wiggins, director of research for Consultants on Learning, Assessment, and School Structure, a Rochester, N.Y.-based firm. “I just pray the interim piece doesn’t ruin it, and that the legislature funds it properly.”

‘Skating on the Cutting Edge’

Like many aspects of the year-old school-reform law, the provisions calling for the new assessment system are expected to propel Kentucky into the forefront of education innovation.

Several states, notably California, Connecticut, and Vermont, have developed performance-based assessments as part of their assessment systems, and many others plan to do so. But few have created such a comprehensive system of alternative assessments as the Kentucky law calls for, and few have tied the results so directly to rewards and sanctions for schools.

The statute required the Council on School Performance Standards, a statewide group created by Gov. Wallace G. Wilkinson in 1989, to define outcomes for students that match the six goals for student performance set out in the law.

To measure such outcomes, the law also mandated that the state board create “a statewide, primarily performance-based assessment program to ensure school accountability for student achievement of the goals.”

Recognizing that such an assessment system could not be put in place immediately, the law also called for an “interim testing program to assess student skills in reading, mathematics, writing, science, and social studies in grades 4, 8, and 12.”

Doris Redfield, a professor of education at the University of California at Los Angeles and the chairman of the consultants’ panel, said the interim system is aimed at easing the transition to the full-scale performance-based assessment program.

“The technology for creating a valid performance-based system is still evolving,” she said. “Kentucky is skating on the cutting edge.”

She also noted that the state has been buffeted by “episodic” changes in its testing program over the past few years. In 1988, the state shifted from a home-grown “essential skills” test, which was created in 1984, to a nationally normed test, only to see that test eliminated by the reform law.

The transition would ensure that Kentucky students “didn’t have to undergo another change in three to five years,” Ms. Redfield said.

Under the plan adopted by theel10lstate board, the assessment system, when it is fully in place, will consist of three components.

The first, an accountability assessment, will be used to determine if schools are eligible for rewards or sanctions. It will be administered every two years to students in grades 4, 8, and 12.

Ms. Redfield noted that the assessments “are not meant to be an assessment of grade 4, 8, and 12 [content].”

“Together, they are meant to measure up to the point we dip the stick,” she noted.

The accountability assessment will consist of scheduled performance tasks, which are to be administered across the state at a given time and scored by the test contractor, and portfolio performance tasks, which are to be collected by teachers up to a cutoff date and scored by the school’s staff. These will be placed in an “accountability portfolio,” which will be subject to a state audit.

The board’s proposal cited as examples such tasks as having students develop a visual-arts portfolio to try out for “Camp Mona Lisa"; estimate 100 grams of beans, rice, and cereal; or write a smoking policy for their school.

Mr. Foster, the Governor’s aide, said having teachers evaluate the tasks would enhance their professional development and at the same time reinforce standards for high-quality student work.

Currently, he said, “teachers are so accustomed to mediocre work, something above that looks very4good to them, and gets an A.”

‘Scrimmage’ and ‘Super Bowl’

The other parts of the assessment system, which are voluntary, are aimed at measuring performance of students not tested by the accountability system.

One, a formal assessment, uses tasks developed by the test contractor to assess students in the state’s new system of ungraded primary grades, grades 5-7, and 9-11. These assessments, the request-for-proposals states, are like “scrimmages” in preparation for the “super bowl” of the accountability assessment.

“If you want to get kids ready to perform well in grades 4, 8, and 12,” said Ms. Redfield, “it makes sense to let teachers and parents know how students are doing along the way.”

The other, a less formal aspect of the assessment system, includes assessments used by teachers from day to day as part of their instructional practice.

For the interim system, the specifications call for tests beginning in the 1991-92 school year that would permit comparisons with students in other states.

The tests should be “the same or similar to those used by” the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the document states. That means that they include multiple-choice and performance-based items that assess higher-order skills; use sampling procedures, rather than test every student on every item; and maintain standards against which performance can be compared.

Mr. Wiggins, the consultant, said the board’s decision to require such comparisons reflects a disagreement with the consulting team over the law’s requirement that the interim assessment be “naep-like.”

But he added that he hoped the debate over the interim assessment would not carry over to the overall package, which will require considerable support--and funding--to carry out properly.

“It’s still a noble effort,” Mr. Wiggins said. “It needs to be carefully managed.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 08, 1991 edition of Education Week as Ambitious Student-Assessment System Advances