This week the US Department of Education announced that Kentucky will receive “full flexibility,” as Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) spokesperson Lisa Gross characterized it, from many requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB).
Under NCLB, Kentucky’s schools were required to bring all students to a 100 percent proficiency rate in reading and mathematics by 2014. Success along the way was measured against “Annual Measurable Objectives (AMO),” which included separate evaluations of scores for racial subgroups, students in poverty and even students with learning disabilities. Each student subgroup had to meet the annual AMO target. If even one subgroup failed in a school, that school would face sanctions.
That 100 percent proficiency requirement and the separate AMO targets angered many educators. School personnel claimed this was clearly an impossible goal to reach in such a short time frame, and that it was probably impossible for students with learning disabilities. Many schools were identified as “Improvement Schools,” which meant they had failed to make an AMO and thus did not make Adequate Yearly Progress overall.
The NCLB program also essentially created confusion. There were two separate accountability programs in the state. Schools could do well on one while falling into the sanctions category on the other. It happened frequently.
One part of NCLB did have merit, however. With its focus on racial minorities, NCLB finally forced Kentucky to really pay attention to the achievement gaps for the state’s minority students. Neither the original KIRIS assessments created by the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990 nor the replacement CATS system, which came on board in 1999, provided effective accountability for minority students. Instead, because all scores for all students first were averaged together to develop a single overall average score to be compared to a single standard, it was possible for schools to perform very poorly with minority students and yet escape penalties under both KIRIS and CATS.
It was also possible for schools to perform very poorly in either math or reading, or both, but to offset that with much better performance in other evaluated areas. As a result, it was possible for a school to have a very low proficiency rate in, say, math, but still score well enough to avoid sanctions all the way to the end of the CATS accountability period (which was also set for 2014).
Another problem with Kentucky’s assessments is neither KIRIS nor CATS seemed to measure what is now considered to be of primary importance for students. The goal that wasn’t adequately measured: getting students ready for college and careers.
As time went on, especially for CATS, it became abundantly clear that Kentucky’s statewide school assessment program was not reliably measuring student performance that mattered. CATS scores continued to rise while remedial course requirements in Kentucky’s public postsecondary education system remained very high. By 2009, the Kentucky Legislature had enough and directed, through Senate Bill 1, that the KDE completely revamp our state assessment to make it relevant to students and the public with a true focus on college and career readiness.
Flash forward to the present, and the creation of Senate Bill 1 nicely set the stage for the Kentucky Department of Education to craft a good NCLB waiver request. The new assessment program coming on line over the next few years will have a definitely college and careers focus, and it will eventually include many important elements such as evaluation of education gaps, ACT college entrance test scores, measures of student progress over time and evaluation of programs that are not easy to test such as each school’s programs for Arts and Humanities.
There will also be increased accountability for high school graduation rates.
There may be at least one potential problem with the new system. The new assessment and accountability system will still aggregate scores from many sub-areas into one final score to be compared to a single, annual performance standard. Without separate AMO tests for critical areas such as minority gaps, this can lead to the same very serious problem we had with KIRIS and CATS: schools balancing very poor performance in key areas or with certain student subgroups with better performance in others to ultimately escape badly needed attention.
I am told that the federal government is well aware of this problem, and the final, approved waiver request supposedly adds in some AMO ‘tripwire’ areas for gaps and graduation rates to overcome the weakness in KIRIS and CATS. I have not had time to go over the entire waiver approval package, so I don’t know if this is actually included, or not.
One thing is certain. While the improvement in the education of our kids is still an on-going question, there is no doubt that many people in Kentucky both inside and outside the school system – including us at the Bluegrass Institute – are a lot smarter about school assessment than we were a decade ago. If the new program does have weaknesses, we will be a lot more likely to spot those problems, a lot quicker, than ever before. And, we will be watching out for those problems.
In the end, we certainly hope that our new assessment and accountability program will turn out to be exactly what almost everyone really wants – a high quality evaluation tool that will highlight exemplary schools to learn from and those schools where a lot more learning still needs to start.