Editor’s note:  Senate Bill 1 (SB 1), enacted in the 2009 Kentucky General Assembly, requires a new public school assessment program beginning in the 2011-2012 school year. Kentucky Teacher is doing a series of stories explaining the Unbridled Learning: College/Career Readiness for All assessment and accountability system this month. This article focuses on accountability. The system is subject to United States Education Department approval and may be changed prior to adoption.

By Matthew Tungate

Melanie Santiago answers a question for James Rutledge and Antoneo Watkins during her freshman civics class at Western High School (Jefferson County). Santiago is a graduate of Western High School. Photo by Amy Wallot, Nov. 30, 2011

Melanie Santiago answers a question for James Rutledge and Antoneo Watkins during her freshman civics class at Western High School (Jefferson County). Santiago is a graduate of Western High School. Photo by Amy Wallot, Nov. 30, 2011

Anyone can understand Kentucky’s Unbridled Learning assessment and accountability system if they understand the basic concept, according to one of its designers.

“We’re going to give schools one score, tell them they’re better than a certain percentage of schools and tell them we want to improve that percentage each year,” Office of Assessment and Accountability Associate Commissioner Ken Draut said. “At the highest level, it’s a very simple system.”

In late summer 2011, the Kentucky Board of Education (KBE) approved an even simpler accountability system it was ready to use. Under that version 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 require the state to enact annual measurable objectives (AMOs) for schools and districts.

That caused Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) staff to redraft parts of the accountability system, Draut said.

“What we wanted to do, of course, from the beginning was move our single state accountability system into this area to take the place of the NCLB accountability system, so we would have one accountability system model, not two,” he told the board in December. “That’s caused problems over the years.”

The biggest change required setting ambitious but achievable annual goals, Draut said.

Commissioner Terry Holliday emphasized to the board that achievable is an important part, as 80-85 percent of Kentucky schools will  not meet the adequate yearly progress goals under the current NCLB next year.

“The problem with No Child Left Behind is the hopelessness of reaching 100 percent,” he said. “We didn’t want to put out a model that made the same mistake – ‘There’s no hope, so don’t even try.’”

Under the proposed system, each school and district will have a single annual measurable objective (AMO) goal “not 25 or 18 or 17 like we’ve had in the past,” Draut said.

While AMOs will be locked for five years, there is no end date when all schools are expected to reach a certain score, he said.

“We’re not going to worry about (what) date is you finally get to proficiency. We just want to see you move up to this AMO each year,” he said. “The goal is 100. We want to see you constantly and forever moving toward proficiency, but we’re going to set that through annual goals.”

The new accountability model includes student data from testing, gap, growth, college/career readiness and graduation rate (Next-Generation Learners); 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. Senate Bill 1 (SB 1), enacted in the 2009 Kentucky General Assembly, requires a new public school assessment program beginning in the 2011-12 school year.

This year, only the Next-Generation Learners component will be used for school and district accountability.

If the NCLB waiver is approved, all schools’ overall scores will be compared to other schools of the same level (elementary, middle and high school). The Department of Education would then find two key percentiles: 70th and 90th.

Rhonda Sims, a director in the Kentucky Department of Education’s Office of Assessment and Accountability, said to think of a bell curve. Schools scoring better than 90 percent of other like schools will be called distinguished. Those scoring better than 70 percent of other like schools will be called proficient. Those in the remaining 69 percent will be classified as needs improvement.

Using the bell curve makes all schools strive for continuous improvement because every year they will be compared to how other schools of the same grade level have done, she said.

The 70th percentile is a very important number, Draut said. Whatever overall score is at the 70th percentile will become the score to reach to be called proficient over the next five years. Any school that improves enough to reach that score will go from needs improvement to proficient, he said.

“Since the overall score associated with the 70th percentile remains locked for five years, it means many 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, Draut 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,’” he said.

 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,” at least in the first year.

“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.”

At the end of five years, some schools that were proficient may go back to needs improvement because other schools have improved more, Draut said.

“Dr. Holliday would say that’s fine because we’re moving up again,” he said.

 AMOs push growth

AMOs will be determined after Unbridled Learning overall scores are calculated, Draut said.

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. 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 schools 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.

Simulated data to establish what a good standard deviation would be came up with 7 percent, far less than the 20 percent improvement goal originally discussed, Draut said.

“That would mean still a little less than 50 percent of your schools probably wouldn’t make their AMO based on their simulated data, and that was kind of a sweet spot for us,” he said.

Draut acknowledged that low-scoring schools that grow only 7 percent of the standard deviation each year might be classified perpetually as needs improvement. However, those schools would be called progressing as long as they meet their AMO.

New category ‘focuses’ on gaps

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 groups’ 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, called the third standard deviation, Draut said.

“If a school’s individual group of kids was 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.”

Gap students will still be rolled together into one group for accountability, but individual groups also will be reported, and any individual group could get a school targeted as a focus school.

High schools also can achieve focus status by having a graduation rate of less than 60 percent for two consecutive years.

Draut said the new accountability model is based on premise that schools will continually be improving 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.”

“This goal of 100, there are no dates on it,” he added. “All we’re asking is that you constantly move up. It’s a major change if you think about it.”

Unbridled Learning Accountability Model
Accountability White Paper