This coming school year, for the first time, the Kentucky Department of Education will require public high school students to take end-of-course tests in certain basic courses, measuring what they've learned.
The tests will be required for students taking English II, Algebra II, biology and U.S. history. The national ACT testing organization will provide the exams.
Test scores will be figured into Kentucky's accountability system, which measures schools' progress in moving students toward proficiency.
The state Board of Education also has recommended that high schools count the test results as at least 20 percent of students' final grades in the four courses this school year, department spokeswoman Lisa Gross said.
The end-of-course assessments were authorized under Senate Bill 1, the wide-ranging education reform measure approved by the Kentucky General Assembly in 2009.
Sen. Ken Winters, R-Murray, who heads the state Senate Education Committee, said the new tests will give educators and state officials more information on how Kentucky students are performing in selected courses that are offered in every school district in the state.
"I've advocated these exams for some time," Winters said. "If a young person leaves high school, in Paducah or Pikeville, having had these end-of-course exams will tell us what we need to know about their performance."
State Rep. Carl Rollins, D-Versailles, who chairs the House Education Committee, said he hopes many high schools will elect to use the end-of-course exams in calculating students' grades in the four classes.
"What we want to do is kind of standardize what's expected of students, to make sure they got the content that they needed in these courses," Rollins said. "We need to make sure the content is really covered in a pretty rigorous way. I think we should have had it a long time ago."
Gross called the tests a "whole new concept for Kentucky."
"Lots of states do have end-of-course tests to hold students accountable, but we've not done that until now," she said. "Previously, we had no legislative mandate to do it."
Having the tests count toward final grades in the four courses should provide motivation for students to work hard for high scores, she said.
"The older kids get, the harder it is to get them motivated about these tests, because they don't see them as having real value for them," Gross said. "They don't have an effect on their final grade, and colleges don't look at them.
"But counting the scores on grades gives students some sense of ownership in the tests."
Mike McKenzie, high schools director for Fayette County Public Schools, said some schools in the district have had end-of-course tests in some subjects for several years.
"So this won't be radically new for us," he said. "Obviously, the tests will be different, but the concept will be the same."
It will be up to site-based councils at each high school to decide how to count end-of-course test results in students' grades, he said.
"I've heard that in some school districts, they're looking at phasing it in, perhaps 10 percent the first year, 15 percent the second year," McKenzie said. "Each of our principals and councils are trying to make that determination now. But there will be greater student accountability than before."