Ky. Reformers Await Reaction to Results Of Tough New Tests

By Robert Rothman — September 23, 1992 6 min read

Members of the Jefferson County, Ky., school board last week received an unusual lesson on the state’s landmark reform law.

In addition to conducting their regular duties, the board members, along with everyone attending their meeting, answered questions and performed tasks that were administered to students last spring as part of the state’s new assessment system, which was created by the 1990 law.

The purpose of the exercise, according to Robert J. Radosky, the director of research for the Jefferson County school district, was to prepare board members for the results of the assessment, the first part of which was released three days later.

The statewide results showed that very few students at any grade performed at high levels compared with state standards.

The demonstration achieved its desired effect, Mr. Radosky said. Board members recognized that the tasks students were asked to perform were challenging, he said, and that the standards against which they were judged were high.

“It was an awareness session,’' Mr. Radosky said. “I think we got them aware.’'

The Jefferson County board meeting was one of a number of events held last week across the state to focus attention on the assessment results, which mark a major milestone in Kentucky’s two-year-old reform effort.

By showing where students stand, the data demonstrate for the first time what is needed to attain the high achievement goals that were at the heart of the reform law, said Robert F. Sexton, the executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence.

“The reform was an abstraction before,’' he said. “The results ought to make it quite real.’'

But Susan H. Fuhrman, the director of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, a research center based at Rutgers University in New Jersey, cautioned that the low results might produce a backlash against the higher standards.

“I hope people understand,’' she said. “They need to be patient until the system can gear itself up to a higher level of instruction.’'

“I hope they don’t go back to good-news kinds of tests,’' Ms. Fuhrman said.

Few at High Levels

The results released last week were based on tests administered last spring to 140,000 students in grades 4, 8, and 12.

The tests included multiple-choice and short-answer questions in reading, mathematics, science, and social studies. Results of the other parts of the assessment, which included performance tasks and writing portfolios, are expected to be released over the next two months.

Some of the test information will be delayed, however. Two percent of the answer sheets were destroyed when a Federal Express truck caught fire in May, and several hundred were lost, according to state officials. As a result, about 4,500 students will retake the tests this fall.

When all of the data are compiled, the state education department will take each school’s assessment results, together with such factors as attendance and dropout rates, and combine them into an “accountability index.’'

The reform law provides that, beginning in 1994, schools will be evaluated on their performance on the index. Schools that exceed their goals will receive rewards, while those that fail to meet them face sanctions.

The 1991-92 assessment results show that “all of us have our work cut out for us,’' said Commissioner of Education Thomas C. Boysen.

Only 3 percent of 4th graders, 8 percent of 8th graders, and 10 percent of 12th graders performed at the “proficient’’ or “distinguished’’ levels in reading, and similarly small percentages of students performed at high levels in the other subjects. The rest of the students performed at the “novice’’ or “apprentice’’ levels.

Female students tended to outperform males in reading, science, and social studies, but there was little gender gap in math. White students performed at higher levels than non-whites in all subjects at all grades.

Intended as a ‘Shock’

Kenneth Cox, the principal of Tates Creek High School in Lexington, said the low levels of performance would come as a surprise to parents accustomed to seeing their children perform above national averages on traditional standardized tests.

But, he said, parents’ attitudes will change once they understand that the assessment measured students’ abilities to apply their knowledge, not simply to memorize facts, and that that is the direction the state wants schools to take in the future.

“I don’t think they’ll want to take teachers and students and hang them by their thumbs,’' Mr. Cox said. “They’ll say, ‘If these are the rules we are playing by now, let’s learn by the rules.’''

Mr. Boysen noted that the shock value of the results could spur educators and parents to bring about improvements.

“This is coming as a shock to people around the state. It’s intended to,’' he said. “In order to get dramatic change, there has to be a felt need.’'

Mr. Boysen predicted that teachers’ desires to boost student achievement will do more than the accountability system to raise performance.

“As powerful as the rewards and sanctions are, the clarity of the standards to teachers and students are going to be more powerful,’' he said. “I think teachers definitely want their students ready. If their peers decided what all 4th graders should know and be able to do, that kind of clear feedback is going to be very powerful.’'

Driving Instructional Reform

Other educators said that the assessment itself could spur change by demonstrating the type of instruction that could lead to higher levels of performance.

Virgil Covington, the principal of Winburn Middle School in Lexington, said that his faculty has analyzed the tests and found that students attained higher levels of performance not by knowing more facts, but by answering the questions in a different way.

As an example, he cited a question that asked how to determine which type of popcorn is best. Those judged at the novice level, he noted, responded by counting kernels in the packages, while those at the distinguished level set up an experiment to compare the various types.

“What we’re trying to do is get teachers to ask more questions that will allow different answers,’' Mr. Covington said. “Knowledge of the answer will not get them to the distinguished level.’'

Mr. Covington also discounted concerns that the presence of multiple-choice questions on the assessment would deter such shifts in instruction. A group of consultants that had designed the framework for the assessment had warned that an interim test that includes multiple-choice questions could detract from the state’s performance goals.

The reform law requires a completely performance-based assessment by 1995-96.

“We understand the weighting’’ in scoring the assessment, Mr. Covington said. “They put less emphasis on the multiple choice, and more on the open ended. We’ll move our instruction more towards that.’'

Overhaul, Not a Tune-Up

Accomplishing such shifts will require massive amounts of teacher training and assistance, said Marilyn Hohmann, the principal of Fairdale High School in Louisville. In her school, which since 1988 has been a member of the Coalition of Essential Schools, a national network of reform-minded high schools, only a third of the teachers have revamped their practices, she noted.

“This takes time,’' Ms. Hohmann said. “This is revolutionizing the way we approach instruction. It’s not something teachers can do effectively easily.’'

To provide such assistance, the state has included four days of training time a year in the school calendar and authorized districts to add an additional five days. The state has also provided $10 million for training and created a network of teacher volunteers to assist other teachers in implementing reforms.

Despite these efforts, teachers contend that there have not been enough professional-development activities, said Marnel C. Moorman, the president of the Kentucky Education Association.

Mr. Boysen said that the magnitude of the task of improving student performance could serve as a sufficient incentive for schools to revamp their instructional practices.

“This is a time for fundamental change,’' he said. “When 90 percent of students are not proficient, it is not a time for a tune-up. It’s time for an overhaul.’'

A version of this article appeared in the September 23, 1992 edition of Education Week as Ky. Reformers Await Reaction to Results Of Tough New Tests