Accountability

Kentucky Lawmakers Take Aim at State Tests

By Linda Jacobson — March 10, 2008 7 min read

The testing program tied to one of the nation’s most closely watched education accountability systems is under siege in Kentucky from GOP lawmakers pushing a bill to replace it with nationally standardized tests.

The Commonwealth Accountability Testing System, or CATS—stemming from the landmark Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990—covers seven academic areas and includes writing exercises called portfolios.

But members of the Republican-controlled state Senate, led by Majority Leader Dan Kelly, say eliminating most of the testing program, which is tied to a high-stakes accountability system, could save the state as much as $10 million a year and give teachers far more time to focus on the curriculum instead of preparing for and administering the CATS.

“Is this open-response test worth the [money and] six to eight weeks of resources when we could be spending time on task and then be getting more valuable information from the norm-referenced test?” Sen. Kelly asked when he spoke Feb. 29 on the Senate floor.

Democrats, who control the House, however, have expressed opposition to the plan, Senate Bill 1. And in a year when newly inaugurated Gov. Steve Beshear, also a Democrat, is focusing on one of his chief campaign promises—expanding casino gambling to help pay for education—a radical plan to redesign the testing program might be more of a political statement than the spark needed to improve the program.

Kentucky Secretary of Education Helen Mountjoy, who was appointed by the governor, is opposed to the plan. Gov. Beshear also voiced his opposition to the plan last week, saying that “it ignores the professional judgment” of the state’s educators and alters “the underpinnings of Kentucky’s educational improvement effort at a critical point.”

State Education Commissioner Jon Draud, who is appointed by the state board of education, also announced that he would create a task force to study education reform in the state, particularly testing and accountability issues.

State education department officials, while not taking a stand on the bill, are seeking to clarify some of Mr. Kelly’s claims about time and money.

Implementing the proposal would save about $6 million, out of an annual budget of $11.3 million for the tests now given, according to an analysis prepared by the Kentucky Department of Education, which differs in its cost estimate from that suggested by the bill’s supporters. While the state currently gives schools a 10-day testing window to administer the “core content” sections of the test, the assessment plan in SB 1 would take five school days.

Impact on NCLB?

As some critics of the bill have pointed out, the department’s analysis also suggests that replacing CATS with norm-referenced tests, such as the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, or CTBS, published by CTB/McGraw-Hill, might make it difficult for the state to fully comply with the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which requires states to administer tests that are aligned with state curriculum standards.

“It would be highly unusual for a state to totally scrap their entire assessment program,” said John Tanner, the director of the Center for Innovative Measures at the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers.

Many states, he added, use commercially developed tests and then add items based on state standards, but “it’s not common to make this kind of reversal.”

Criterion-referenced tests, such as those now used in Kentucky, measure how proficient students are on a set of state standards. Norm-referenced tests, such as CTBS, measure where a child stands in comparison with a sample of peers, with scores reported on a curve that always includes some children at the top and some at the bottom.

Robert F. Sexton, the executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence—a Lexington, Ky.-based advocacy group that pushed for the changes under the 1990 reform law—added that substantial alterations to the testing program, also pushed by Mr. Kelly and fellow Republicans, were made just two years ago, and that teachers have not had a chance to fully adapt to those requirements.

One of those changes included requiring all high school students to take the ACT college-entrance exam and adding some of those results to the accountability program. Under the proposed bill, the ACT exam would completely replace the high school exams that are part of CATS.

The bill’s provision to begin using a new set of tests in spring, 2009, Mr. Sexton added, is “wildly out of line with what would have to happen,” and abandoning the state-developed test would disrupt “the continuity of your data” as the deadline under the No Child Left Behind law to reach 100 percent student proficiency by 2014 approaches. (Mr. Sexton is a trustee of Editorial Projects in Education, which publishes Education Week.)

Enacted in 1998 under then-Gov. Paul E. Patton, a Democrat, the CATS program replaced the Kentucky Instructional Results Information System, or KIRIS.

Proposed Changes

Legislation being pushed by Republican lawmakers in Kentucky would scrap the state’s current testing and accountability system in favor of a new set of assessments. Among the changes proposed:

• Replacing state-developed assessments with a national norm-referenced, multiple-choice test.

• Requiring the ACT college-entrance exam in place of high school exams.

• Removing open-response questions from the state’s accountability system.

• Eliminating living/vocational education, the arts, and the humanities from the state assessment program. Schools would give local assessments in those areas.

• Requiring schools to communicate to parents how their child’s performance compares with that of other students at the local, state, and national levels.

Source: Education Week

That previous system was ushered in as part of the 1990 law, the legislature’s sweeping response to the state supreme court’s 1989 ruling that the state’s entire education system was unconstitutional, focusing to a great degree on school financing. The reform law, which changed not only curriculum and assessment, but also instituted a new finance and governance structure, served as a model for other states as they joined the move to standards-based approaches to improving schools.

But now, some of the same complaints made about the KIRIS program—that it didn’t offer individual scores, that it took too long to provide results, and that it didn’t allow for comparisons with other states—are being made about CATS.

At the time that KIRIS was being revised, some lawmakers also called for commercially available tests. Mr. Kelly has been pushing for adoption of a norm-referenced test for several years.

Importance of Rankings

According to Lisa Gross, a spokeswoman for the state education department, some policymakers in the state have always been uncomfortable with the fact that the Kentucky tests are meant to measure school performance but cannot be used to compare student to student or state to state.

“Kentucky has been doing this kind of assessment since the early ’90s, and it’s been a source of almost constant criticism,” Ms. Gross said. “People place a lot of importance on rankings. Parents just want to be able to say, ‘We’re number one,’ or ‘We’re number ten.’ ”

The writing portfolios now required under CATS in the 4th, 7th, and 12th grades have been criticized and are targeted for elimination under Mr. Kelly’s bill, which also would eliminate extended, open-response questions now required in the 5th, 8th, and 12th grades. Students in grades 5-12 would still submit writing portfolios, although they would not count as part of the accountability program.

Even if administering the writing portions of the test takes significant class time, Ms. Gross said, the change in attitudes toward writing since the passage of the reform law has been dramatic.

“Writing isn’t just seen as something we do when we have time,” she said.

College Readiness

Some observers—as well as Sen. Kelly—have suggested that the push for replacing the CATS program has come from the higher education community, which supported the addition of the ACT college-entrance exam to the program in 2006.

A report released in 2004 by the Frankfort-based Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education, which under state law focuses on improving the state’s higher education system, showed that more than half the students entering colleges and universities in the state needed at least one remedial course, especially in mathematics.

And the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce released a report on postsecondary education in December of last year that said strong connections did not exist between all levels of the education system.

“A striking example of this is the misalignment of the state assessment for high school students, the Commonwealth Accountability Testing System or CATS, with the expectations for postsecondary-level study,” the report said.

Ms. Gross of the state education department suggested that the frustration with the CATS program might reflect Kentuckians’ feeling that they haven’t seen the huge gains in academic achievement that they expected after the 1990 law took effect.

For example, the percentage of all Kentucky public schools making adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind law increased to 77.5 percent in 2007, from 65.8 percent in 2006. But a majority of middle and high schools are still not meeting that key benchmark. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress’ 2007 math exam for 4th grade, 27 percent of Kentucky students in that grade scored at the proficient level, compared with 33 percent for the nation. In 8th grade reading, 25 percent scored at the proficient level, a little below the 27 percent of 8th graders nationally who did so.

Mr. Sexton of the Prichard Committee acknowledged that CATS could stand some improvement: The turnaround time for results could be shortened, he believes, and end-of-course exams for high school students should be developed. But the legislature hasn’t put funding in the state budget for those items.

Ms. Gross said education officials still think the tests are having a positive effect.

“It’s a matter of how far behind we were and how far we had to go,” she said.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 12, 2008 edition of Education Week as Kentucky Lawmakers Take Aim at State Tests

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