New Kentucky student assessment test: Prepare to be confused

More than 500,000 Kentucky public school students will take the state's new K-Prep test for the first time this spring, and educators are concerned that the results could leave many families confused and concerned.

The new test was mandated under Senate Bill 1, the 2009 reform package that the General Assembly passed to strengthen Kentucky's public education system.

Scores will look radically different from those on the old CATS test, which K-Prep replaces. There will be many new measures, from student growth to gaps to graduation rates, that parents aren't used to seeing. Finally, the scoring system for the new test will be so different that state education officials say it won't be possible to compare the 2012 results with scores from previous years, something parents frequently do to see if their schools are improving.

All this comes on top of demanding new common core content standards in math and English language arts, which also were required by SB 1. Under those standards, Kentucky students now are tackling concepts in, say, seventh or eighth grade that previously weren't taught until ninth grade. The standards themselves are expected to push some scores downward.

While all the steps are intended to better prepare Kentucky students for college or careers, educators worry that the transition will be difficult.

The 2012 test results won't be made public until next fall. But some school districts already are starting to hold public forums and seminars to explain things in hopes of preparing parents for the potential shock.

"The new scoring system is based on a scale of 100, whereas in the old system you had an index score that went all the way up to 140," said Fayette County School Superintendent Tom Shelton. "So, a lot of people may look at the new scores and immediately be confused into thinking their school has dropped.

"They may say, 'we were at 112 or 115 last year and we're down at 80 something this year.' I think it's going to be an issue for people."

Stu Silberman, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, said there's also a concern that if the public misreads the test results, some might start calling for the state to drop the tough new standards it has adopted.

"With the new standards, we've increased rigor ... and we're teaching different subjects at earlier times to be more internationally benchmarked," Silberman said. "What's happening is really good for our kids. But we don't want people to see the initial outcomes and say, 'We'd better back off this.'"

Lisa Gross, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, said department officials are preparing a brochure to explain the new test and its accompanying scoring system.

"In some ways it's simpler than the old system, but it's also more complex," she said. "The top layer is simpler, because there will be one overall score on a 100-point scale that people can relate to. But if you start digging into how they arrived at that score, it becomes a lot more complicated."

School districts that performed well on the previous test should continue to do well on the new one, Gross said.

"But the numbers may not look the same, and that may be what confuses people," she said. "We're trying to get people ready for that."

The Prichard Committee last year started a program called ReadyKentucky to tell the public about new core content standards and other educational changes. ReadyKentucky also is trying to get out the word on the new test, says program director Robyn Oatley.

Oatley said she's done several presentations before groups in Fayette County, as well as training some school district staffers in how best to explain the new testing program to the public.

"Overall, the accountability system is changing from the old index to a percentage basis," Oatley said. "So, if a school was at, say, 120 last year, their score might go down to a 90 this year, even if they maintain the same proficiency level.

"If the public doesn't understand the change, they might say, 'Oh my, their score went down 30 points.'"

Kentucky students will be the ultimate winners in the tougher new system of standards and accountability, Oatley said.

"Educators know this is right for the kids, but it's not without its challenges," she said. "We can't afford to go back. But this is going to be a tough road for a while, until we get the bumps worked out."

Meanwhile, Shelton said, Fayette County may need some sort of informational campaign in each school to explain the test differences.

"This is going to be almost like a pilot year, a benchmark year to see where our schools are against the new standards and the new structure," he said. "But the scores will have to be taken in context before you can make an evaluation of how we're doing against the standards."