By Jennifer Wohlleb
When it comes to Kentucky’s new accountability system, the long-vaunted “apples and oranges” have been kicked to the curb in favor of a single-fruit method. Apples will now be able to be compared to other apples.
When the first test scores from the Unbridled Learning accountability model are released this fall, schools and districts will be ranked – a departure from previous versions of the state’s testing system where districts were measured against their own progress toward individual goals and not against each other, at least not officially.
Why the change?
“With Senate Bill 1’s focus on a more detailed accountability model, the early discussions at KDE around how to design the model kept coming back to the idea of comparisons,” said Kentucky Department of Education Communications Director Lisa Gross. “Commissioner Holliday was particularly interested in ways to compare schools and districts to each other … The ultimate goal is no longer just proficiency, but is more focused on the bigger, broader idea of college/career readiness. Proficiency plays into achievement and gap, of course. Also, the new tests include criterion-referenced (standardized) questions, making direct comparisons much more valid.”
Ken Draut, associate commissioner of Assessment and Accountability, said he thinks the public will love the change.
“If you’re a parent, it’s one of the questions you want to know: where’s my school and where do we fall in the grand scheme of things?” he said. “From one side, the public and stakeholders ought to really like it. The educators are the ones who are really going to have to make the switch to seeing it put out this way from the department.”
The superintendents interviewed for this article were generally supportive of the change and the new testing system.
“The rankings are something we’ve always been told (in the past) are not important, but it is important for the school people and it’s important for the community to have some idea of how you stack up with other districts and how our kids perform, relative to other kids in the state,” said Grayson County Schools Superintendent Barry Anderson.
Monticello Independent Superintendent Gary Abbott said the state has needed to make this change for a long time.
“The old system was set up for failure and this new system is a step in the right direction to correcting that,” he said. “The whole idea is to get every child college and career ready and I think that is what it does. It helps the school system because it really breaks down individual scores.”
Montgomery County Superintendent Josh Powell has been a longtime proponent of ranking schools and districts.
“It allows us to have goals that are driven by data and to compare to each other,” he said. “I have four young children, two of them are in school. I want our state to be No. 1, but I’ve got to know where we’re at as a district, I’ve got to know where all our districts are at to achieve that goal. I think it is a major step forward for Kentucky.”
He said rankings are also a simple way for communities to understand how their schools are doing.
“When you try to explain to people how many percent proficient and how many kids are in what tier status, the average person can’t understand that,” Powell said. “You know what they do understand? Kentucky basketball rankings, and when Kentucky is not No. 1, they want changes to be made immediately. You can take people who you think don’t care about education and let them know their community is ranked 170 out of 174, see how quickly they become involved in bettering education in their community, because no one wants to be low performing in anything.”
Pendleton County Schools Superintendent Anthony Strong also used as sports analogy.
“We’re in a society where we rank basketball teams, we put scores on scoreboards,” he said. “I addressed my staff today at opening day and one of the things I talked about was, if we do our jobs effectively and we commit to what has to be done to improve our students, the scoreboard is going to take care of itself.”
Livingston County Superintendent Darryl Chittenden said while he and other district leaders are still formulating a plan for the data release, he said the public can count on being well informed.
“We’re using some different techniques this year to communicate, things we haven’t done in the past,” he said. “We have a district Facebook account, a district Twitter account, as well as our website and we would like to use technology to its maximum to get information like this out to the parents and the public.”
Grayson’s Anderson said while there are still challenges ahead, the important message to convey is that this system will be better for students and their levels of achievement and success.
“I think any time you change a system you probably do take a few steps backward before you get going forward, but I don’t think educators are afraid of that now,” he said. “We’ve been under the spotlight for quite some time now. I think we know where we’re at and what road we’re on and we’re not at the end of the journey, we’re still in the journey. So I think we’re embracing it and feeling good about it.”