‘Keep the focus on students …’

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Rhonda Sims Photo by Amy Wallot, July 8, 2015
Rhonda Sims
Photo by Amy Wallot, July 8, 2015

By Kentucky Teacher Staff

Rhonda Sims, a longtime employee with the Kentucky Department of Education, was named associate commissioner of the Office of Assessment and Accountability in April.

Sims oversees the Division of Assessment Design and Implementation and the Division of Support and Research. The office and its divisions provide services to Kentucky public school districts, including management of all statewide assessments, data reporting, the Unbridled Learning College and Career-Readiness for All Accountability Model, federal compliance and communications.

Since 2005, she has handled much of the day-to-day work with district assessment coordinators and the logistics of the state-required testing programs. She also has played an important role in developing, implementing and communicating the state’s accountability model.

Kentucky Teacher asked Sims about her thoughts on education and assessments. Here’s what she had to say.

Who was your favorite teacher and why?

I have been blessed with many wonderful teachers. All of them shared the common characteristics of caring for students as individuals, having strong content knowledge, holding high expectations, providing feedback and supports, and serving as learning coaches.

In Casey County grades 1-12, I would highlight my mom (Roma Sims), an aunt (Faye Sims) and a cousin (Sherman Sowers), Alene Luttrell, Judy Sapp, Shelia Elliott and Maxine Price. At the college level, Dr. Drewry Meece Jr. at Campbellsville College and Raymond Cravens at Western Kentucky University were special mentors. Finally, I must mention my colleagues at Model Laboratory School, particularly Priscilla Lane, Vicki Daugherty and Jay Roberts (my husband).

Is there an event or person in your past that helped you decide to become involved in education?

I was interested in being a teacher at an early age. My mother was a teacher and as a small child I would “teach” my dolls in my own classroom. Although I had completed teacher certification in college, I drifted away from K-12 teaching and entered a doctoral program in political science after my master’s. While I was in a graduate seminar on global balance of power, I found myself mentally designing lesson plans and a unit of study. It was my “ah-ha” moment, when I realized I was on the wrong career path. The next semester, I enrolled in the college of education and started applying for teaching positions.

What are your responsibilities in your position as associate commissioner of the Office of Assessment and Accountability?

My primary responsibility is the management of the statewide assessment and accountability program. This means frequent interactions with local school districts, stakeholders, advisory groups — such as district assessment coordinators and the School Curriculum, Assessment and Accountability Council — the National Technical Advisory Panel on Assessment and Accountability and the Kentucky Board of Education on procedures and policies for the system. Also required is coordination with multiple vendors and the federal government concerning assessment issues. Fortunately, I have a strong OAA leadership group and a great employee team of quality people that work to accomplish the many tasks required to manage the system

Testing and assessment are two words that can carry negative connotations for people. What is the biggest misconception you find people have about student assessments?  

Kentucky has an accountability system that includes test results; there is much attention to the tests. Kentucky’s tests are administered to measure students’ understanding of the standards and to provide a picture of how schools and districts are doing in implementing the standards. I often hear the phrase, “I am teaching to the test.”. In reality, you are teaching the standards. If you teach the standards, you are preparing students to take the test.

What is the one thing you most want teachers to know about assessment and accountability?

One single thing a teacher can do to improve assessment results is to keep the focus on students and improving each of them every day. I think the most powerful process a teacher can use is to implement the standards with rigor, expect high performance from every child, use a formative assessment process to determine what students know and can do, and adjust instruction to provide students any extra support they need to reach the expectations.

Kentucky will delay incorporating job performance ratings of teachers and principals into the Unbridled Learning accountability model this year. Can you explain why?

The data available this year reflected only a third of a school’s teachers and leaders. In the first year of implementation, considering only the percentage of effective teachers and leaders, the state achieved already nine of the 10 possible accountability points — which leaves little room for improvement. Some additional measures for professionals that highlighted novice reduction were discussed with stakeholders, but did not gain support. All of these factors influenced delaying the data’s inclusion in accountability. The Kentucky Board of Education will reconsider including the data next year.

Explore and Plan are no longer being given in Kentucky. Can you talk about what options the state may be looking at to replace them?

In the 2015-16 school year, no new tests will be added. We will examine the tests we already administer to determine if the data can be used to provide more information on readiness.

For middle school, the 16 percent of results from Explore will be distributed across Achievement, Gap and Growth. For high school, the 4 percent of results from Plan used for language mechanics will be redistributed. High growth can be calculated the same as prior years since students who took the last administration of Plan will take the ACT in spring 2016.

Moving forward, a number of readiness tests are available in the marketplace and KDE will follow the state procurement process for any possible purchase.

Can you share any information about the development of Next-Generation Assessments in science?

The assessment and curriculum offices with Kentucky and national science experts are working with the assessment company WestEd to create a test design and item prototypes. WestEd’s first step was to capture the thinking of science teachers in the science networks. When WestEd’s work is complete, KDE will be sharing information with teachers and using it in the process to secure a test vendor to create Kentucky’s new science test.

Looking ahead, can you tell us what you see as the biggest changes coming for the Unbridled Learning assessment and accountability system?

Beginning in 2015-16, a greater emphasis has been placed on reducing the number of students in the novice performance level. This is reflected in changes in the accountability calculations for Gap and Growth. Also, KDE has developed novice reduction strategies to share with schools and districts.

How has technology changed assessments and accountability in Kentucky? Do you foresee a time when all assessments will be given online?

Currently, Kentucky has an online option for End of Course testing and a text-reader option for students needing a read aloud accommodation on K-PREP grades 3-8. We are excited about the ability of going online to offer new item types in the future. I can foresee a time when nearly all assessment is online. But, I think states will always need some limited print format for students with specific accommodation needs.

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