Schools tested, not kids
Ky. addresses shortcomings

Friday, December 4, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Kentucky's KIRIS tests -- the latest results were released Thursday -- were not designed to tell parents how their children are doing in school.

KIRIS (Kentucky Instructional Results Information System) rates the school, not the child.

Yet students are still labeled with performance ratings of novice, apprentice, proficient and distinguished in every subject area, based on their scores.

The state's testing experts and educators say parents need to keep a few things in mind when looking at their child's individual student reports.

"Most people, when they look at assessments, look for comparable terms. This is not that type of test," said Gene Wilhoit, deputy commissioner for assessment and accountability. "I would encourage parents to get beyond the first brush with the scores. It's not a total judgment of what a student can do."

Because the KIRIS test does not follow students' progress, the test scores are a snapshot of how well a student is doing in a subject at one point in time.

Student score reports do show where an individual student stands against all other students who took the same test.

An example: A seventh-grader is rated proficient in reading and has a Kentucky percentile rank of 92. That means 92 percent of Kentucky students who also took the test scored at or below this student's score.

"The drawback is this does not tell where a student was last time because the student didn't take the test last time," Ockerman Middle School principal Mel Carroll said. "What parents want to know is how their child does over time."

A common complaint from teachers and parents is that KIRIS does not provide data that shows if a student is learning more or learning less. That is simply one of the exam's flaws. It does not hold students and teachers accountable for their performance.

KIRIS scores do not determine if a student is promoted to the next grade. KIRIS scores are not part of graduation requirements. And KIRIS scores are not included on a student's transcript.

What the scores do decide is if a school receives bonus money or if a school needs to create a plan for improving scores in a certain subject.

The KIRIS test can be likened to the bar exam that lawyers must take, said Robert Sexton, director of the Pritchard Committee for Academic Excellence, a Lexington, Ky., group that pushed hard for education reform. Like the bar exam, KIRIS gives a good picture of how much students know on the specific material tested.

"If parents don't understand the scores, they should sit down with the teacher, find out what the standards are and what's expected," Mr. Sexton said.

"Once they know what's expected, they can figure out with the teacher what they can do to make the scores better," Mr. Sexton said, "whether it's reading at home or turning off the TV."

Bill Patrick, a fifth-grade teacher at Mildred Dean Elementary School in Newport, tells parents that KIRIS offers an idea of what's happening with education in Kentucky.

The assessment tests, and some of the problems that go along with the scoring, also raise a lot of questions, Mr. Patrick said. For example, the arts and humanities section consists of two questions, and each question is assigned its own grade. This differs from sections on math, where all questions in that section are assigned one grade.

By grading the arts and humanities questions in this way, the scores are deflated. The result is an impression that most schools are not doing enough in the arts.

The state's testing experts say they are aware of those scoring inadequacies and are working to fix those problems so they don't occur with next year's test.

"It's not ideal. It's not as good as it could be," said Scott Trimble, director of assessment implementation. "We need to have a longer test in each area to improve scoring."

Parents should also remember what it means if their child's school is considered to be in decline.

Schools compete against themselves. They are assigned a goal score to beat and if they don't show improvement, the state considers them in decline, in need of more work.

The in-decline label is misleading because many schools in this category are actually scoring much higher than the state average. Many in-decline schools also do quite well on national tests and other assessment exams.

"These scores are based on the standards that all students are expected to know," Mr. Wilhoit said. "Schools are working toward a strong state standard, not the schools in their neighborhood."

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