BY ANDREA TORTORA
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Northern Kentucky schools made significant gains on the final round of a frequently criticized statewide test, many posting scores well above the state average.
Scores released Thursday for the Kentucky Instructional Results Information System (KIRIS) test taken in the spring show that 82 percent of Northern Kentucky schools are in the "rewards" category. That's better than statewide figures showing 76 percent of schools sharing $27 million of financial bonuses.
Next year, the KIRIS tests will be replaced with the Commonwealth Accountability Testing System, which will test more students in more grades and will include a component to show how Kentucky students compare to students across the nation.
In KIRIS results across the state, high schools made large gains in writing, social studies and arts and humanities; elementary schools held steady in all subject areas; and middle schools are in need of some work, testing officials said. The past spring's tests are combined with tests from the previous year, and those scores are compared to the previous two-year cycle.
Out of 91 schools in the five-county Northern Kentucky
area, 75 will get rewards and 16 are in decline. Highlands High in Fort Thomas moved out of decline. Mildred Dean Elementary in Newport hit the rewards category for the first time. Ludlow High School scored above its goal, beating out other high schools often in the lead.
Silver Grove Schools dropped well below their goal, moving into the decline category.
"It appears where schools look at the results, they make corrections that translate into improvements," said Gene Wilhoit, deputy commissioner for assessment and accountability.
Exactly how schools make those changes has critics accusing educators of teaching to the test, and supporters wanting to model the practices that snagged the reward money.
Grant County poured energy and money into arts and humanities, sending students on field trips, bringing in professional dancers and starting an orchestra program. The district's scores improved. "Some schools show these tremendous jumps; others like Beechwood show gradual increases," said Fred Bassett, Beechwood Schools superintendent. "This puts us in a quandary of how to respond. We've tried to avoid teaching to the test. What we want to have is a strong academic program. Evidently there are tricks you learn to do well on this test."
Whether the test focuses on tricks or puts emphasis on subject matter has been debated at length.
Teachers at Holmes High School in Covington developed a methodology to teach students how to understand test questions. English teacher Ruth Johnson said staff dissected KIRIS questions and looked for key words. Then they looked at how questions were scored.
Students now know that if a question says to draw something, they should label what they create. They learned the definition of the word discuss -- to consider and argue the pros and cons of -- a key word often used in essay questions.
These strategies, plus incentives of food, movie tickets and other prizes, helped the school raise its score 11.7 points, earning a reward.
"Some of us saw the preparations as annoying or unnecessary when we did them in class, but it did help us learn what they wanted on the test," senior Ami Karlage said.
At Mildred Dean Elementary School in Newport, teachers in all grades know that fourth- and fifth-grade students will take KIRIS exams in math, reading, writing, science and the arts.
So they start preparation early, teaching students about rewriting and showing them how to fully answer questions. When the school decided to use federal funding to decrease class size in the fourth grade, test scores started to improve.
"We're working on our writing every day," said teacher Garlene Turner. "And with the lower grades working toward this, I notice that I'm getting better writers."
The efforts are paying off. Mildred Dean beat its last two-year index by 13.3 points to enter the rewards category for the first time.
The student writers said they are having fun because they get to make up stories and spend time making them better.
"About every day we do that on the computer," Patrick Allen said as he pulled stories out of his writing portfolio.
Teachers at Ockerman Middle School in Florence knew they might not meet their KIRIS goals this year. They were a school in the high category last time and they had some tough numbers -- generated by themselves -- to beat.
The school's scores dropped by 6.3 points, and now this middle school is in decline.
But numbers can be deceiving. The school scored well above the state average. Its scores on national tests were some of the highest in the district.
"We can't rest on our laurels. We need to improve,"
principal Mel Carroll said. "We need to do an improvement plan."
Teachers like Kathy Bacelieri say they are seeing lots of improvements in student work. Ms. Bacelieri, a language arts teacher, said she encourages students to write about things they know and like. That keeps them excited. And it's creating more interest in academics.
Adam Pfendt, a seventh-grader, said Ms. Bacelieri is turning him into a public speaker. "She picked me for speech and drama. It's made me more open," he said. "She knows exactly what to do to get us excited."
Schools tested, not kids
Test trends, facts