By Madelynn Coldiron
Spencer County got the jump on most other districts in the state last year when it began end-of-course testing at its high school. The district used some of the same exams that are being given this year as part of Kentucky’s new accountability system.
“We found that they are difficult and very rigorous,” said district assessment coordinator Norma Thurman. “But actually the teachers felt like they were a good thing. It’s going to be hard to do well on it the first year or two, I think, until everybody gets a good handle on it.”
High school students statewide will be taking the tests this year in English II, algebra II, biology and U.S. history. There are five, 10-day testing windows for administering the exams throughout the school year, but most students are expected to take the tests at the end of the year.
A sprinkling of students on a trimester schedule or a using self-paced online system may have already taken the exams. Green County Superintendent Jim Frank said a handful of students at that district’s high school took the English II and algebra II tests after completing online courses.
“We felt like with these students, they performed very well and we were pleased with that,” he said. “Judging from that, I think it’s going to be a very fair test.”
The testing is provided by the ACT QualityCore program, which is aligned to the new common core state standards and ACT’s college and career readiness system. It uses two segments of off-the-shelf multiple choice questions, plus what’s called a “constructed response” segment, which basically is an essay-writing format designed for Kentucky by a third-party vendor.
The state education department recommended that the end-of-course exams count for 20 percent of a student’s final grade, finally giving students some skin in the accountability system. About half the districts followed that recommendation.
School boards in many cases consulted with high school councils in making the decision about setting the percentage.
Clark County school board Chairwoman Judy Hicks said the board was initially taken aback by the high school’s request that the scores count for 30 percent of the final grade, but in the end, “we respected their wishes.”
“The principal indicated we aren’t where we want to be and must do this level to show how serious we are about expectations and rigor in what we’re trying to do,” she said.
Owsley County’s high school requested to use the recommended 20 percent figure, which the school board agreed to. “We thought their judgment might be better than ours,” said board Chairwoman and retired school administrator Joyce Campbell.
Campbell County Schools used a committee of administrators and district staff, along with school council input, to arrive at a three year, 10-15-20 percent phased-in system that about a dozen other systems also are implementing. The panel didn’t feel comfortable holding students accountable for the full 20 percent because at the time the decision was made, teachers had not yet received the teaching resources they needed for the exams, Associate Superintendent Dr. Shelli Wilson explained.
“In three years, we may be looking at 20 percent and saying that’s not enough. But right now we felt it was fair to the students, fair to the teachers, fair to central office,” Wilson said.
That was the same reasoning behind the Green County school board’s decision to begin with the end-of-course exams counting as 10 percent of the final grade, with 2 percent annual increments up to 20 percent, according to Superintendent Frank.
“Twenty percent of your grade could have a bigger impact than might be anticipated, at least this first year,” he said.
The Lyon County school board also was concerned about the effect on students when it set the level at 10 percent.
“We just want to see the difficulty of the test,” Superintendent Quinn Sutton said. “With the new standards, we wanted a time of adjustment for our teachers, to understand the test and the standards as well before we make the accountability so stiff for our students that it could jeopardize their GPA and their KEES (state scholarship) money.”
The Erlanger-Elsmere Independent district initially OKed a figure of up to 30 percent, but is expected to revise it to 5 percent because of inadequate teacher training time, concerns about alignment with core content and fairness to students, Superintendent Dr. Kathy Burkhardt said.
Sutton and Burkhardt expect their districts to gradually increase the initial percentage.
The big picture
Just as important as an individual student’s grade, the end-of-course exams will also count in a high school’s accountability score. “It really takes the place of what we’ve done in the past with Kentucky Core Content at the high school level,” said Rhonda Sims, director of Assessment Support with the Kentucky Department of Education.
The complex formula weaves the end-of-course scores into the achievement and gap portions of Next Generation Learners within the accountability system. Points are awarded based on the percentage of students scoring proficient, distinguished and apprentice.
Overall, in addition to increasing rigor, the end-of-course exams will have the effect of standardizing tested courses across the state.
“The whole drive behind moving to an end-of-course program is the idea that you’re establishing a common level of expectation, so when I earn a credit in algebra II in Pikeville, it means the same thing in Paducah,” Sims said.