Kentucky education commissioner to feds: Back off on test changes

Kentucky Education Commissioner Stephen L. Pruitt speaking in front an audience of approximately two-hundred people at a Town Hall meeting in Lexington, Ky., on Thursday April 7, 2016.
Kentucky Education Commissioner Stephen L. Pruitt speaking in front an audience of approximately two-hundred people at a Town Hall meeting in Lexington, Ky., on Thursday April 7, 2016.

Kentucky Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt has planned to roll out a new statewide science test in a pilot program in the spring of 2017 and a new accountability system that includes all statewide tests in 2017-18.

But Pruitt says the U.S. Department of Education, to the detriment of Kentucky’s students, is pushing for earlier changes on the science test that aren’t aligned with what students are learning in the classroom.

Kentucky gives a science test now that was previously approved by the U.S. Department of Education but it is not included in the state’s accountability system as the new test will be.

He said Kentucky was given two options: give the old science test that was aligned to the previous standards, or label students’ scores on the test that is given now as Distinguished, Proficient, Apprentice or Novice like on other state tests.

Those tests do not measure those four performance levels. The science test given now — called the national norm referenced test — measures how students compare to other students who take the test.

Pruitt also took exception to a proposal that would require the state to identify the lowest performing schools for a new accountability system using data from the old system.

Pruitt said it isn’t fair to identify a school as low performing under one accountability system and then judge whether it is making progress under another one.

In addition to sending a cease and desist letter to Secretary John B. King Jr., Pruitt said he’s willing to testify about his concerns to a congressional committee.

On the statewide science tests, the state requires students to be tested to ensure they are learning. By either giving a science test that is not aligned with what state education officials think is important for students to learn or labeling performance on that test, Pruitt thinks state education officials are not being honest with parents or students about why Kentucky is testing or what the test shows.

Pruitt thinks it becomes merely an exercise in compliance with no value to parents or students when it comes to them knowing how they are doing in school and if they are learning the skills and knowledge state officials believe will make them successful.

“What they are requiring is about compliance, not about what’s best for kids,” Pruitt said at Wednesday’s Kentucky Board of Education meeting. “I probably should warn everybody that we probably will end up on some list somewhere. We are out of compliance,” he said at the meeting.

In the May 16 letter, Pruitt said during a May 5 telephone call that federal staff insisted that “Kentucky implement science assessments and performance levels that do not match Kentucky’s actual science standards.”

Pruitt said he was also informed by federal staff “that Kentucky’s new accountability system” or portions of it, have to be in place by 2016-17, so that the lowest performing schools could be named in 2017-18 and be helped to turn around.

Pruitt said Kentucky had just received an opposite message from the federal department of education.

Dorie Nolt, the press secretary for the U.S. Department of Education, responded on Thursday with a statement:

“Like educators, parents, and many others, we’re eager to implement a new, broader vision of accountability that goes beyond just test scores as soon as possible,” said Nolt. “That said, in order to provide time for the transition, our proposed regulations call for new systems to be in place in 2017-18, not 2016-17. We welcome comment on this timeline as we work together to implement this new, broader vision of accountability as swiftly and smartly as possible.”

Pruitt told the Herald-Leader that while plans were not firm, he could testify in front of a congressional committee by the end of June.

Valarie Honeycutt Spears: 859-231-3409, @vhspears