Sunday, January 10, 1999

Kentucky's education reform lauded

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Seven years after Kentucky started administering a high-stakes testing system, the education reform efforts are still receiving praise from national testing experts and researchers.

        Kentucky is ahead of the game, the experts say, because it is not afraid to fix problems in its education reform system. Gathered by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, this group of testing gurus said other states can learn from what Kentucky is doing.

        “Kentucky had its program monitored and it has turned up positive and negative findings,” said George Madaus, professor at Boston College's Center for Study of Testing, Evaluation and Educational Policy. “I think studying those

        negatives can teach you what to look for.”

        Kentucky is now creating a brand-new assessment test, to be taken by students this spring. The state board of education could adopt the plan in February. Jeff Mando, state board member from Villa Hills, said the goal is to create a better test, one with more reliability that requires less testing time.

        “We know (the old test) had some flaws. There were liability questions,” Mr. Mando said. “Our belief is that this new test will meet those concerns.”

        And last week, Education Week's Quality Counts 99 report, which rates education in all 50 states, said Kentucky's reform is proving its staying power, remaining strong despite legislative changes and the move to a new test and accountability system.

        “The history of most reforms is that they are repealed or substantially weakened after the initial enactment,” said Jim Parks, education department spokesman. “One of the unusual things about Kentucky's reform was that the people that put it together were the leaders of the legislature. That's very unusual.”

        But the experts also say all states, including Kentucky, must take heed of certain factors like race and socioeconomic status when deciding how to use test scores. And most do not think tests tied to graduation, like Ohio's proficiency test, are a good idea.

        “I absolutely believe that attacking these tests is not going to get anyone anywhere at all,” Mr. Madaus said. “These tests were demanded by policy makers, and they are telling us something.”

        Exactly what test scores are saying is a big debate. Problems are arising because standards for these high-stakes exams are not enforced or are too open to interpretation, said Jay Heubert, associate education professor at Teachers College at Columbia University.

        “There should be evidence that tests only cover the materials students had the opportunity to learn,” Mr. Heubert said. “And we should ask if the results of the test are used in an educationally appropriate matter.”

        That means state education departments and school districts should be sure they are using the right test to get the results they want. For example, some tests are made to track student placement; others are geared for mastery, like Ohio's proficiency test.

        Educators also must be sure to give all children equal opportunities to do well on such tests, said Art Coleman, assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights.

        Curriculums should be in line with what's being taught in the classroom. Accommodations should be made for limited-English language students. And how students are placed in gifted or special education classes should be examined.

        “If states only use test scores for placement, there is something wrong,” Mr. Coleman said.

        For example, according to research by William Trent, associate chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, test scores for black and white students are more similar when they enter school than when they graduate.

        “Accountability should be shared, but it's all on the students,” said Nancy S. Cole, president of the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J. “Accountability often leaves out parents, educators and the community. We're only part-way there.”

        • Forty-eight states now test their students, but only 19 of them publicly rate the performance of all schools or identify low-performing schools.

        • Iowa and Nebraska do not test their students.

        • Of the states that do test, all assess students in English; 47 test in math; 42 test in writing; 36 test in science; and 33 test in history or social studies.

        • And 19 states have tests students must pass to graduate. Those states include Indiana and Ohio.


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