Associate Commissioners Ken Draut, Dewey Hensley and Felicia Cumings-Smith speak to the Kentucky Board of Education regarding the new assessment and accountability system. Photo by Amy Wallot, Dec. 7, 2011

Associate Commissioners Ken Draut, Dewey Hensley and Felicia Cumings-Smith speak to the Kentucky Board of Education regarding the new assessment and accountability system. Photo by Amy Wallot, Dec. 7, 2011

By Matthew Tungate

If approved by the U.S. Department of Education, Kentucky schools and districts will have an annual improvement goal under a revised version of the state’s Unbridled Learning assessment and accountability system.

Under previous versions of the plan, schools would have received a score and been placed in one of three categories: needs improvement, proficient or distinguished. But they would not have had an annual improvement goal for accountability. However, waiver guidelines from federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act regulations requires the state enact annual measurable objectives (AMOs) for schools and districts.

Staff from the Kentucky Department of Education briefed the Kentucky Board of Education on the requirements of the waiver during the board’s Dec. 7 meeting.

In addition to AMOs, other changes caused by the waiver include new designations for schools and districts based on how they perform under the requirements of Unbridled Learning; inclusion of student growth as a component of the state’s teacher and principal evaluation system; and removing specific accommodations for students with special needs previously allowed during testing of reading and mathematics.

The new accountability model includes student data from testing, gap, growth, college/career readiness and graduation rate (Next-Generation Learners); principal and teacher effectiveness (Next-Generation Professionals); and Program Reviews (Next-Generation Instructional Programs and Support). Scores from each of the three areas ultimately will be totaled for an overall score.

At the center of the board meeting were the changes necessitated by the federal waiver. The board and department want Unbridled Learning to match federal requirements so schools and districts have one accountability system instead of two.

Associate Commissioner Ken Draut said Unbridled Learning, as previously planned, met most requirements of the federal waiver: identifying reward schools, which will receive recognition for performance, and priority schools, which are the lowest-performing schools needing the most support, for instance.

However, the federal waiver also calls for AMOs and focus schools, which have the largest achievement gaps or lowest graduation rates, which were not part of Unbridled Learning, Draut said.

“AMOs and focus schools caused us to step back and take a look at the model and see what changes we need to make,” he said.

AMOs will be determined after Unbridled Learning overall scores are calculated, Draut said. Elementary, middle and high schools’ scores, respectively, will be placed on a continuum from 0-100. Schools scoring at or better than 90 percent of all like schools would be called distinguished. Schools scoring at or better than 70 percent of schools would be called proficient, and all others would be placed under the needs improvement category, he said.

The overall score associated with the 70th percentile score will become the standard for proficiency for five years. Any school that reaches that score over the next five years will be proficient. Any school that reaches the 90th percentile score will be called distinguished.

“It means everybody can reach that 70th percentile (score),” Draut said. “That would be the goal.”

Every five years, scores will be re-plotted, and new 70th and 90th percentile scores will be determined, and that will become the threshold for the next five years, he said.

“It stretches schools to constantly move and improve their scores, but it also sets a score that allows every school to say, ‘We can do better and we can move up the ladder,’” Draut said.

Commissioner Terry Holliday said board members should expect some pushback about the new system, as using the 70th percentile for proficiency means that 69 percent of schools will be labeled needs improvement.

“This model’s still better, from the school and district standpoint, than what we have with No Child Left Behind,” he said. “But the key to this model is, once you set that 70th percentile, they’ve got the score they need to strive for for five years; we won’t change it.”

Draut told the board that the new model is “built on a theory of constantly and forever improving your student achievement.”

“What we want to see is every school improving,” he said. “And as every school improves from cycle to cycle, the average of all schools moves up and all schools keep moving toward the score of 100.”

To find the amount each school is expected to grow each year of the five-year cycle, KDE will calculate the average score for all elementary, middle and high schools, respectively, Draut said, and determine a standard deviation – the average distance each score is from the average score. Under the latest proposal, Draut said, schools scoring below proficient would be expected to increase by 7 percent of the standard deviation each year. Schools scoring proficient or distinguished would only be expected to grow by half as much, he said.

“The reason for less of a goal for the above proficient is because when you start getting on the top end of the spectrum, growth is a little harder and so the goal that you have is a little less, and schools below proficient need to make a little steeper gains,” he said.

Schools that meet their AMO will be categorized as progressing, Draut said.

The waiver also calls for another new category: focus schools. One aspect of the Unbridled Learning assessment system calls for student groups, such as minorities or English-language learners, to receive a gap score – the difference between how those students perform against their peers as a whole. All gap groups will be combined for one gap score for schools, but individual gap group’s scores also will be reported.

Focus schools are those with the lowest 10 percent of overall gap scores or who have a single gap group score in about the lowest 1 percent, Draut said.

“If a school’s individual group of kids, if they were at the very end of the spectrum, they would be picked up by the third standard deviation model,” he said. “You could be the best-scoring school in Kentucky and have a single group that’s at the very bottom of the spectrum, and you would get targeted as a focus school.”

Teacher/principal effectiveness also affected

A future part of the assessment system, Next-Generation Professionals, also will be affected by the waiver request.

Associate Commissioner Felicia Cumings-Smith told the board that the waiver requires it to adopt guiding principles for the teacher- and principal-effectiveness system. The department, which has been working on the model for two years, has a preliminary set of guiding principles that will come before the board in 2012.

“This is the first of many conversations we’ll be having over the next few months,” she said.

Holliday told the board that the system must have six components to meet federal waiver standards:

  1. continuous improvement of instruction
  2. meaningful differentiation of teacher/principal performance using at least three levels
  3. multiple measures of effectiveness including the use of student growth data (both state standardized tests and formative growth measures that are rigorous and comparable across schools in a local district) as a significant factor
  4. regular evaluation (most likely annual)
  5. clear and timely feedback to include opportunities for professional development
  6. use of the system to inform personnel decisions.

Kentucky’s plan meets these standards, including the multiple measures – and the use of student growth data, he said.

“There is no system in Kentucky, if we get the waiver, there is no system that could ignore student growth on standardized tests as part of the evaluation system,” Holliday said. “So to even have that debate is fruitless at this point in time if you want the waiver and if you want to accept the $17 million in Race to the Top funds.”

The board’s most difficult discussion to come is the weighting of each of the multiple measures and how much flexibility school districts will have to use their own evaluation systems, he said.

Testing accommodations change

The board finalized another change already under way before the waiver to limit the help that students with special needs receive on mathematics and reading portions of the Kentucky Performance Rating for Educational Progress (K-PREP) tests.

The new regulation prohibits students from receiving help from a reader on reading comprehension tests or a calculator on mathematics tests. Draut said the change will not affect any other subjects tested or affect student accommodations during the rest of the year.

“This is just around that one single, summative test,” he said.

Kentucky is one of only eight states that allow these types of accommodations during state testing, he said. Because of that, the state has one of the highest exclusion rates in the country on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also called the Nation’s Report Card.

Holliday said the national rule of thumb is that 95 percent of students with disabilities should be taking state tests without a reader. By comparison, only about 60 percent of students with disabilities in grade 3-12 took the 2011 Kentucky Core Content Test without a reader.

Now is the time, when the state is changing its assessment system, to change the rules on accommodations, he said.

“This is a strong policy statement,” Holliday said.

The board also took the following actions:

  • approved state regulation 703 KAR 5:240, the new state regulation providing administrative guidance and reporting processes for the state’s new accountability system
  • repealed regulations guiding the former Commonwealth Accountability Testing System (CATS)
  • approved state regulation 704 KAR 5:070, which will provide data on students’ readiness for learning and success in kindergarten
  • approved state regulation 703 KAR 5:140, requirements for school and district report cards
  • approved the Legislative Agenda for the 2012 Regular Session of the General Assembly
  • agreed to support the Kentucky Environmental Literacy Plan in conjunction with the implementation of next-generation science standards

The board heard reports and had discussions on:

  • Digital Learning 2020: A Policy Report for Kentucky’s Digital Future
  • a new restraint and seclusion regulation
  • amendments to 704 KAR 4:020, School Health Services

The Kentucky Board of Education’s next regular meeting is scheduled for Feb. 1, 2012, in Frankfort.