Testing changes may confuse schools, parents over next three years

Fayette County Public Schools says it plans to score students' writing portfolios this spring, even though that's not required under a new student testing bill approved last week by the Kentucky General Assembly.

Superintendent Stu Silberman also says the district expects to calculate and make public its own "academic index" based on this spring's testing, whether the state publishes a performance index or not. Some other school districts probably will do the same, and some might not.

Meanwhile, the Kentucky Department of Education says it will report statewide results from this spring's tests under the legislation, but isn't sure yet what form that might take.

Those are just some examples of uncertainties over student testing that Kentucky educators must sort out during the next few weeks if Senate Bill 1 becomes law, as expected. Gov. Steve Beshear has indicated he will sign it.

SB 1 would replace the state's Commonwealth Accountability Testing System, or CATS, with a new test starting in 2011-12. The test will be based on new curriculum standards.

The measure also sets up a mixture of tests for students to take during the interim years, which could mean confusion for educators and parents. In effect, individual school districts could choose to test or not to test in some subject areas, creating the possibility of a patchwork approach across the state.

"The bill has created kind of an opening for districts," said Wayne Young, executive director of the Kentucky Association of School Administrators. "Some districts are going to go ahead and finish their portfolios. But you could get a bit of everything. There's no pattern that I would describe. I just haven't heard enough at this point."

State education department spokeswoman Lisa Gross says the interim provisions in SB 1 might lead to widespread confusion until the new assessment system starts.

"I don't think people really know yet what the ramifications are, since there was such a focus on ending the CATS test," Gross said. "The next two or three years could be very confusing for people."

SB 1 has drawn some criticism because it calls for no state-level accountability of schools' performance during the next three years.

To meet federal No Child Left Behind Act standards, the state would have to assess only reading and math this year. Still, students will take tests in several other subject areas when testing takes place next month.

Robert Sexton, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, says a lack of accountability during the interim is the principal weakness in an otherwise "very strong" bill.

"We'll be giving the tests for the next three years, but parents and the public will know nothing ... about whether a school is making progress or not vis-à-vis other schools and compared to the year before," Sexton said. "I think there will be lots of confusion."

The chief goal of CATS was having all Kentucky children scoring in the "proficient" range by 2014. After last year's tests, 8 percent of the state's schools overall, and 38 percent of Fayette County schools, had reached the mandated goal of scoring 100 out of a possible 140.

Most of the success, however, was among elementary schools, with high schools lagging behind.

A little more than half of the state's schools were on track to meet the 2014 goal, but that yardstick won't exist anymore if SB 1 becomes law.

"Districts could do their own index," Gross said. "The problem comes if you try to say that, based on this index, you're meeting a goal of some kind. A district could set its own goal, but they'd need to be very clear about what it is."

SB 1 mandates that students must be tested this year in the core content areas of reading, math, science, social studies and writing. But writing portfolios and arts/humanities and practical living/vocational studies — which previously were part of CATS — wouldn't be tested or scored by the state this year under SB 1.

Gross says, however, that the state department of education will provide local school districts with copies of tests for arts/humanities and practical living. Districts can then choose whether to give the tests or not, she said.

Gross said the state also is "encouraging" school districts to score their students' writing portfolios and use the results in planning. Still, SB 1 doesn't require school districts to follow that suggestion, she said.

One county that does plan to score portfolios is Fayette.

Silberman says the district thinks it is important, because of students' "commitment" to the portfolios they've been working on all year.

"The students already have put a lot of work into them, and we need to honor their commitment," Silberman said. "It's up to each individual school, but we've suggested that they complete the portfolios, grade them and give the students their grades and feedback."

Silberman said he'd heard of at least one other district that plans to do the same. But he said has no idea how many might score portfolios statewide.

Silberman also said Fayette County plans to calculate and make public a complete academic index of its schools' performances, whether the state publishes a statewide index or not.

"We want to be able to be accountable to the public and share with them what kind of progress we're making," he said. "So, no matter what the state reports in terms of an index ... we'll do that kind of calculation and report it for all the schools in our district."

The report could show how Fayette County schools perform compared to last year, but probably wouldn't offer a comparison with the rest of the state, Silberman said.

According to Gross, the state education department will report scores from this spring's testing of reading, math, science, social studies and writing, but officials haven't decided what form the scores will take. "It could be an index or it could be just a listing of scores for those individual subject areas," she said. "But it's not going to be tied to some goal; it will just be those numbers."

There are other uncertainties about testing this year, according to Gross.

Under CATS, the state annually published "non-academic data," including items like schools' dropout rates, attendance rates and other measures. SB 1 doesn't mention that, Gross said.

"We have to think about collecting that data and what we're going to do with it," Gross said. "There are still some unanswered questions, and it's going to take some time to think through all this."

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