Monday, September 18, 2000

School review system changed

Two-year transition is ended

By Charles Wolfe
The Associated Press

        FRANKFORT — The system devised to assess how Kentucky schools are doing their job, and to hold each school accountable for its results, is emerging from an awkward phase.

        Test scores being released statewide to the public on Sept. 28 are the last act of a two-year transition from old to new, from the often-criticized system known as KIRIS to a new system with the acronym of CATS.

        The scores hold immediate meaning for individual schools in two ways:

        • Each school will find out its “baseline” — where it begins and how far it must go to reach a prescribed, state-mandated level of proficiency by 2014.

        • Schools that exceeded performance expectations during the transition will divide up $22 million in reward money.

        In the big scheme, the baseline may be more significant.

        “Since we're going to be held accountable for a certain performance level, you need to know your beginning point,” Kay Freeland, superintendent of Rowan County schools, said last week.

        At times, all schools in Rowan County have gotten rewards, Ms. Freeland said. But a district cannot live strictly for rewards year to year because scores can too easily fluctuate, she said.

        “We want to see continuous, steady progress from our children,” Ms. Freeland said. “We can't let the heavy emphasis on testing and tracking become the center focus.”

        The impetus for CATS — Commonwealth Accountability Testing System — was a loss of confidence in KIRIS — Kentucky Instructional Results Information System.

        KIRIS was born of the 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act — a custom-designed device to satisfy the General Assembly's demand for a way to simultaneously assess student performance and hold schools accountable for the results.

        The approach was carrot and stick: cash rewards for schools that improved, sanctions — later limited to state assistance — for those that did not.

        But KIRIS was plagued by technical and managerial problems.

        Schools competed against their own past performances, not against each other, and the results sometimes seemed anomalous. High-scoring schools could falter slightly, or fail to improve enough, and be penalized. Low-scoring schools could make incremental gains and get rewards.

        The legislature eventually threw in the towel and decreed in 1998 that KIRIS should be replaced. Rather than start again from scratch, an interim, transitional system was devised.

        “This period has been really just a bridging time,” said Helen Mountjoy, chairwoman of the Kentucky Board of Education.


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