State education officials think many Kentucky parents could be alarmed next week when the new K-PREP student test scores are released.
The K-PREP test, which students took for the first time last spring, offers several new features. State officials expect to release the results next Friday.
The scoring system will rank schools statewide for the first time, as well as emphasizing college and career readiness. The test also is tied to tough new core content standards in math and English, and it's internationally benchmarked to what is being taught in other high-scoring countries.
Educators previously warned parents and community leaders that scores might appear lower, initially at least, when the new system kicked in. Now the time has come.
Under the new system, Kentucky school districts scoring at or above the 70th percentile will be rated as Distinguished or Proficient, the highest rating. That, in turn, puts 69 percent of districts and schools scoring below that level in the "Needs Improvement" category.
Scores also will look different this year because they are based on a scale of 0-100, rather than 0-140 as in previous years. If that isn't enough to confuse people, the new test is so different that education officials say you won't be able to compare this year's student performance with performance in previous years.
State Education Commissioner Terry Holliday and other educators say Kentucky parents shouldn't panic if they see students who scored at the distinguished level in the past falling to apprentice or even novice level in the first year of the new test.
"It's a new bar; it's a new standard; it's more rigorous," Holliday said. "Parents should not be nervous about this. They should work with their teachers and schools and say, 'What do we have to do to help our kids reach these more rigorous standards?' It's going to take a couple of years, but they shouldn't panic."
In the past, the state education officials discouraged people from trying to compare schools based on scores from state tests. This year, however, the testing results will include school-by-school comparisons.
Holliday said officials decided to take that step because he likes the idea, and because various outside groups had persisted in making such comparisons despite the department's objections.
"So, we said that if everybody was going to do it anyway, we'd prefer to kind of give it the state seal of approval," Holliday said. "We also know that parents want to be able to compare their schools against similar schools. And I think comparative data could be a great incentive for education improvement in Kentucky."
The test results will rank Kentucky's elementary, middle and high schools from top to bottom, on a percentile basis.
Schools scoring at or above the 70th percentile (that is schools that outperform 70 percent of all schools taking the test) will be classified as either Distinguished (the top 10 percent) or Proficient (the top 30 percent).
Setting the cutoff at the 70th percentile automatically means that the 69 percent of schools scoring below that level will end up in the Needs Improvement category.
Holliday said officials picked the 70th percentile because it is close to standards of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which Kentucky does not have to follow this year.
"If we'd stuck with No Child Left Behind, we would have had 85 or 90 percent of our schools not meeting Adequate Yearly Progress," he said. "For this new model, we had to set a standard that was similar. So we set the Needs Improvement bar at 70th percentile.
"We'll still have a significant number of schools labeled Needs Improvement. But we will give them a target to get out of Needs Improvement that is much more attainable that the old No Child Left Behind targets."
Holliday called the 70th percentile a "good place to start."
But Thomas Guskey, a University of Kentucky testing expert and member of the Kentucky School Curriculum, Assessment and Accountability Council, says the cutoff is random and will confuse parents.
The new system "is counter to the whole philosophy and orientation of the state testing system," Guskey said. "It doesn't tell you if you've learned anything. It could be that a majority of schools are doing really well. But 69 percent will still fall into the Needs Improvement category."
Carmen Coleman, superintendent of the Danville Independent Schools, said she was a big supporter of Kentucky's accountability system. In the old system, schools were judged by their progress, based on constant improvement by students.
"I am all for the highest standards, I believe we owe our kids nothing less," she said. "But this system is extremely confusing. We've gone from a system that allowed as many to achieve as possible. This system won't allow that. I believe this is going to be devastating for some schools and districts."
Even though there will be challenges, state educators say the new test and standards are essential in preparing Kentucky students for a more competitive world.
The K-PREP test replaces the old Kentucky Core Content Test which had been used for several years. The state hired NC Pearson Inc., a Minnesota firm, to develop the new test at an initial cost of about $7.6 million, education department spokeswoman Lisa Gross said. Pearson's total contract will run to about $58 million over the next six years, according to Gross.
Meanwhile, with new test scores coming out in a few days, various groups, including the Fayette County Public Schools, are trying to spread the word and tell parents and community leaders what to expect.
Fayette County is launching a public information drive to help people understand the test results. Letters will be sent home in the next few days and the district has launched Morethanascore.net, an informative web site, and an e-mail address, firstname.lastname@example.org, where the public can submit questions.
In addition to that outreach, Superintendent Tom Shelton has been making appearance before Commerce Lexington and various civic and community groups to explain the new test scores.
"The explanation is difficult because it's a complex subject," Shelton said. "But we can't sit back and wait; we have to get the information out there."
Other groups, such as the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents, also have been putting out the word. Wilson Sears, executive director of the superintendents' association, said he hopes such efforts will reassure parents and ease the shock if test scores are sharply lower.
"Superintendents are supportive of the new test standards," Sears said. "We have tried to deliver the message across the state that ... while the standards are higher than they've ever been, the assessment system has changed.
"It's going to look different, and you won't be able to judge the test scores this year based on what you've seen in the past."
Challenges aside, Shelton says Kentucky's students ultimately will benefit from the more demanding standards.
"If we look at the global society of today's world, our children in Fayette County and Kentucky are not competing against the kids in the next county or the next district," he said. "They are competing against kids from all over the world.
"If we want to make sure our kids are adequately prepared, we have to have these rigorous standards."
Jim Warren (859) 231-3255. Twitter: @heraldleader