Kentucky School Audits Offer Academic Maps

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Lincoln Elementary School’s teachers and administrators can’t shake the day from their memory: Four years ago, state investigators sat around the principal’s conference table and told the faculty just how low the school had sunk.

Test scores were below average and, even worse, Lincoln’s students weren’t making the improvements that Kentucky law required. Those were just some of the findings that teachers at the school were confronted with following a state-mandated "scholastic audit."

But what seemed like a threat became Lincoln Elementary’s chance to climb out of its dark hole of low student achievement.

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Read the accompanying story, "Audit Program Seeks Out Traits Found in Successful Schools."

"The audit team did not tell us one thing that we didn’t already know," recalled Mary Anne Mattingly, then a teacher at Lincoln and now the 350-student school’s curriculum coordinator. "They just put it in black and white."

Since then, Lincoln Elementary—situated on half a city block in a downtown neighborhood within easy sight of Louisville’s high-rise office buildings—has moved from below-average to among the top 20 percent of Kentucky schools in test scores.

Helping Hand

The blueprint for the change was the scholastic audit itself.

A 1999 state law requires that schools ranked among the lowest one- third based on state test scores must face scholastic audits during each two- year period.

Building on Kentucky’s influential education reforms in the early 1990s, the audits have helped Lincoln Elementary and other schools improve. Now, even successful schools volunteer for the audits.

Nearly 300 of the roughly 1,300 public schools in Kentucky have been audited or faced similar reviews in the past four years.

And while states have been intervening in low-performing schools for years, Kentucky may have struck new gold when its lawmakers asked state officials to create audits that check specifically for traits seen as hallmarks of good schools.

"When our legislature created that statute, they were wise beyond their knowledge," said Larry Lock, a veteran leader of audit teams across the state and the principal of Adairville School in rural south-central Kentucky.

The scholastic audits seem so promising that other states are examining Kentucky’s program as a way to help their schools improve and meet the test-score goals required under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Still, the audits are not everyone’s top priority. Gov. Ernie Fletcher, a Republican, and the state Senate drafted budgets this year that eliminate funds for the audits. House lawmakers, a majority of whom are Democrats, have recommended the current level of $800,000 for the audits.

"It would be a real shame to cut out … the interventions that actually help schools," said Bob Sexton, the executive director of the Prichard Committee for Excellence in Schools, a nonprofit school advocacy group in Lexington, Ky.

The audit teams sent into Kentucky’s lowest-rated schools have six members. Most are educators, but parents are on the teams, too. They receive intensive training in the state’s nine guiding standards and 88 indicators of successful schools covered in the audits.

Teams spend a week in each school and write a report the same week that can reach 100 pages or more. All findings must be backed up with strong evidence. Before leaving, the team shares its ideas for how the school can improve. (See "Audit Program Seeks Out Traits Found in Successful Schools," this issue.)

"You don’t just tell people what they should do— you tell them how to do it," Mr. Lock said. "You give them resources. You give them names of people to call."

Looking Up

Susan French was the state-appointed "highly skilled educator," or teacher-coach, at Lincoln Elementary when the school was audited four years ago. As the audit team prepared its findings, she knew what was coming.

"We had all these talented, committed teachers moving in 500 directions," Ms. French said. "There was no focus."

Ms. French, who was eventually named the principal of the school, guided the staff through the audit team’s report. The staff members broke it down, made charts, and had heart-to-heart talks.

"The staff was a little defensive," recalled Ms. Mattingly, the school’s curriculum coordinator, who knew how hard everyone had been working to meet state academic goals. "We were not in the situation we were in because of lack of dedication or intelligent teachers. We were in the situation we were in because we hadn’t kept pace with the reform."

Frances Royster, the family-resource-center coordinator at the school, said the audit results were a relief to her. For years, she said, there had been low expectations for poor and minority students at Lincoln. "I’m not an educator. I didn’t know how to fix it, but I knew it wasn’t the kids," she said.

Using the audit, which was highly critical of how the school was teaching literacy, Lincoln made some changes based on the team’s input. The school’s reading curriculum, for instance, was not aligned with the district’s plan or state tests, explaining some of the low test scores. As a result, Lincoln decided to expand its program to include more writing in all subjects and richer literature.

Kindergarten teacher Janet Langford, a 15-year veteran of Lincoln, said the audit was "pretty scary," but helped her see that other schools were doing better.

Before the audit, about one-third of her students could read when they finished kindergarten, another third were ready to begin reading, and the rest were nowhere close, she said. "I thought it was just normal," Ms. Langford said, "but the test scores showed our school was below normal."

Crediting the audit with helping the school shift gears, Ms. Langford said that this year, at least one-third of her students are reading at the 2nd grade level; the rest are at the 1st grade level, or are on the verge of reading.

"You’re just driven to push them higher and further," she said.

From Good to Great

When Adairville School volunteered for a scholastic review in 2002, the rural Logan County school had banners touting its honors, such as the National Blue Ribbon Schools Award from 2001.

Adairville hosts daily morning assemblies for its 365 students in grades K-8 to review good character traits, celebrate birthdays, and receive a daily music lesson. (Recently, the youngsters were learning about ragtime.)

Still, Adairville was looking for ways to build on its strong reputation. That’s where the scholastic review came in.

"With that comprehensive audit visit, you literally uncover anything that is and is not happening in a school," said Mr. Lock, the principal. "That’s the only document I’ve seen anywhere that gives you a clear road map to proficiency in schools."

"We were better in some areas than we thought we were," he added of the audit. In other ways, he said, Adairville wasn’t doing "as well as we thought."

The review spurred Adairville to try new things, including the formation of an instructional-leadership team of teachers and administrators that is elected by the school staff to help guide classroom teaching.

That group has since secured an early-dismissal plan that allows two hours of training for teachers every Friday, said Debbie Schauberger, a teacher on Adairville’s seven-member instructional-leadership team.

It also recommended that teachers grapple with different methods of examining student work in order to look for weaknesses in their own teaching, and tap research and colleagues for help.

"That’s what I love most about the climate here. There’s always room for growth," said Cindy Starr, another teacher on the instructional-leadership team.

What Next?

As the audits continue, some people say they can be improved.

David Vick, a farmer and retired school administrator who lives near Smithland, Ky., has led several audit teams over the past few years—including the audit of Lincoln Elementary School. Although the audits do a world of good, he said, the state should be willing to adjust the model.

For starters, the audits are expensive, Mr. Vick said.

Teams often come from far away, and the state must pay their hotel and restaurant bills. Plus, the audits are time-consuming and exhausting for the teams and school staff members.

"Our team worked four very intensive days, and it usually ran from very early in the morning to very late at night, ... and then on the final day we had to have a finished report," Mr. Vick said. "It’s pretty emotionally draining."

"Ideally, we’d get to the place where schools could do their own effective self-audit," he added. "If they use the rubric for the process, I see no reason why they couldn’t do that."

At Lincoln Elementary, staff members now face a challenge similar to that of Adairville: Having already tackled its most acute problems and raised test scores, the school needs new direction,

Ms. Mattingly said Lincoln’s 20- point leap in reading scores one year "was easier to make than maintaining where we are now." She asked: "Now what do we do?"

Lincoln might get the answer from yet another audit.

Because of the school’s promising upswing, the Prichard Committee picked Lincoln for a review it will conduct as part of the group’s research on high-performing, high-poverty schools. Only nine schools in all of Kentucky were chosen for the reviews, which will follow the state’s audit guidelines precisely.

Lincoln Elementary still struggles with some achievement gaps between black and white students, and between children learning to speak English and their more fluent peers. And it faces a possible forced merger.

Hoping to keep Lincoln’s doors open, Ms. French wants to build on the recent successes through the new audit, with a new road map in her hand.

Vol. 23, Issue 30, Pages 6-7

Published in Print: April 7, 2004, as Kentucky School Audits Offer Academic Maps
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This article incorrectly said that the audits were threatened by possible state budget cuts. While state leaders are still debating a new budget, the audits are not threatened specifically.

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