Kansas Board Members Compromise, Keep Assessment

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Kansas elementary and secondary school students will continue to take a statewide assessment--albeit in a modified format--thanks to a compromise by state board of education members.

For two months this summer, a deadlock on the state board left the fate of Kansas' student testing program hanging in the balance.

But finally last month, the board voted to give the assessment system another year of life by renewing the state's annual testing contract with the University of Kansas.

In adopting the delicately brokered compromise, each side in the standoff gave something up.

Conservative Republican board members who had argued for the demise of the current testing system allowed it to continue.

And moderate Republican and Democratic board members agreed to changes, including the removal of "performance" testing items from the assessment.

The revisions to the assessments begin this school year, with more significant alterations due for 1998-99 and beyond.

Many in the state greeted the compromise with relief. "I'm pleased to see the taxpayers' investment in these tests will not be wasted," Gov. Bill Graves, a Republican, told reporters after the vote.

And John Koepke, the executive director of the Kansas Association of School Boards, said the most important consequence of the plan was the knowledge "that the two sides can work together in spite of ideological differences."

Testing Phase-In

In June, the 10-member state board deadlocked 5-5 on whether to authorize the one-year, $900,000 assessment contract.

Over the past six years, the state has phased in a new set of tests of student achievement in reading, writing, mathematics, science, and social studies at three grade levels--one each in elementary, middle, and high school.

The tests contained multiple-choice questions and "performance" components, a testing method that requires students to write about or otherwise demonstrate their knowledge.

Test scores are used as part of the state's school accreditation program and in report cards on school performance.

But a split between the board's more politically moderate members and conservatives dubious about the tests produced the stalemate.

The new plan passed 8-1, with one abstention.

Under the plan adopted Aug. 13, three of the current subject tests are to be administered this year as expected: reading, writing, and math.

But the performance items on the reading and math tests will be optional for schools--not required as in the past.

And the scores on those items will not be collected to calculate a statewide score, as they had been.

Schools still will be required to administer the current performance-based writing assessment.

In school years 1998-99 and 1999-2000, schools will be required to give newly revised state tests in reading, math, writing, science, and social studies.

Some of the revisions would probably have been made anyway because of the state's cycle of updating its academic content standards.

Except for the writing exam, performance assessment will no longer be a part of the state tests. But performance assessments of the districts' choosing will be required for accreditation of local schools by the state.

Local 'Performance' Tests

"Performance assessment isn't gone," said Sharon Freden, the education department's assistant commissioner for learning services.

"It's just moved from the state level to the local level," she added.

And the expectation is that districts will continue with performance assessment in order for their schools to qualify for accreditation, which all schools now have, said Dale Dennis, the deputy commissioner of education.

"There's great pressure and pride in being accredited," Mr. Dennis said.

Mr. Koepke of the KASB agreed. "I think most local boards in Kansas will simply continue to use the performance portion of the test that [the University of Kansas] puts out."

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