Ky. Test Scores Up as KIRIS Criticism Lingers
Scores for the latest round of the Kentucky Education Reform Act's controversial assessment and accountability portion were released last week, and the results show gains in all content areas in elementary, middle, and high schools across the state.
The largest gains for the test--the Kentucky Instructional Results System, or KIRIS--came in reading and mathematics, with fewer students scoring at the "novice," or lowest, level and more students scoring at the "proficient" and "distinguished" levels.
"We're real happy with the gains over the last five years," Lisa Gross, a spokeswoman for the state education department, said last week. "There are gains in all content areas, and surprisingly good results for middle and high schools, which haven't done so well in the past."
Between the 1992-93 and 1996-97 school years, statewide reading scores have risen 31 points, from 32.4 to 63.8, at the elementary level; nearly 11 points, from 38.4 to 49.2, at the middle school level; and 34 points, from 20.2 to 54, at the high school level, according to state data. Math scores have risen 22 points, from 22.3 to 44.8, at the elementary level; 31 points, from 22.8 to 53.8, at the middle school level; and 28 points, from 22.2 to 50, at the high school level.
The KIRIS point scale for content areas ranges from 0 to 140, with 100--the proficient level of performance--the target for all schools. The state expects that by 2012, every school will have reached a proficient level in all seven of the content areas the system assesses.
KIRIS is composed of several different kinds of tests that emphasize reading, writing, and analytical thinking. Schools are measured against their own performance goals, and those that exceed their KIRIS goals receive cash rewards from the state that teachers can use however they choose. Teachers and administrators in schools where scores lag may be placed on probation, and their schools may be taken over by the state.
Cloud of Controversy
In recent months, critics have assailed the assessment program as being too expensive--the test has cost the state more than $100 million to administer over the past four years--too time-consuming, and too unreliable in the results it provides. The state fired its testing contractor last summer after a data processing error caused the firm to miscalculate some 1996 scores. Others say that the high-stakes accountability system puts too much pressure on teachers and is too narrow a gauge of how a school is performing. ("Ky. Fires Firm That Ran Innovative Testing Program," July 9, 1997.)
"Teachers are under tremendous pressure" to score well on the exam, said Betty Lou Whitford, a professor of education at the University of Louisville. "It forces teachers to focus on raising test scores rather than on individual student needs."
It is just that pressure, critics say, that has led teachers to cheat on the assessment or inflate grades. More than 125 schools have been investigated by the state for alleged cheating since 1993, according to Ms. Gross of the education department. Approximately 50 schools, she said, have had KIRIS scores changed after such allegations were confirmed.
In the wake of all this, KIRIS' most vehement detractors have proposed scrapping the exam in favor of a national norm-referenced test. But lawmakers have rejected those proposals, instead agreeing to tweak the state's assessment in the upcoming legislative session. And, already this year, the state has begun administering the tests in additional grades to reduce "unnecessary teacher and student stress caused by testing" in just the 4th, 8th, and 11th grades as was the practice previously, state officials said in a report on the new accountability results.
In recent months, an education task force put together by the legislature--composed of lawmakers, educators, and business leaders--has been mulling over the assessment. It plans to complete a list of recommendations for the assessment later this month.
Janet Carrico, the president of the 30,000-member Kentucky Education Association and a member of the Task Force on Public Education, said she has several changes in mind. Among them is a proposal to replace sanctions associated with the test with assistance, including more personnel and money for teacher professional development in low-performing schools. She has also proposed limiting use of KIRIS reward money to professional development.
State Sen. David K. Karem, a Democrat and the leader of the task force, said the group is debating those and many other changes to KIRIS. "Without a doubt, the KIRIS exams are the most problematic aspect of KERA, but we're working to make it better, not do away with it," he said. "The main problem is that it's an assessment, and there are no perfect assessments."