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End of course testing

The ‘end’ is in sight for testing

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By Madelynn Coldiron
Staff Writer

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.

The verdict?

“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.

How much?

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.

End-of-course exams create other questions

Even as districts prepare for new end-of-course exams at their high schools, there remain some question marks about the program.

Schools will have to decide whether they administer the two multiple-choice sections of the tests online or via paper-and-pencil. They can use different methods for different content areas, though each test must be taken using the same method.

The handful of Green County High School students who have taken some of the end-of-course exams did so online, said Superintendent Jim Frank.

That worked well, but, he said, “We don’t know whether or not we’ll try to do that with our whole high school body, those classes that are taking it, just for the simple fact that we’d hate to run into technology problems in the middle of it.”

Campbell County administrators are already working on the logistics and scheduling of the testing, Associate Superintendent Dr. Shelli Wilson said, adding that it will be challenging, given the need for computer labs.

“It’s going to alter the schedule for all students,” she said.

Fitting the two, 45-minute multiple choice segments into what for many schools is a 75-minute class schedule will be problematic.

The third segment of the exams – writing, or constructed response – must be paper-and-pencil. While results from the multiple-choice portions will be available nearly immediately for those testing online to within 10 days for paper-and-pencil, the written portion results will not be available until accountability reporting the following fall. This means the written portion can’t be included with a student’s final grade.

“That does present a bit of an issue,” said Rhonda Sims, director of Assessment Support with the state education department.

Sims said some superintendents have suggested that the writing scores contribute to a student’s grade the following year or be added for extra credit. This could not be applied to students who are graduating seniors, however.

“You do want to motivate the kids, who now have a stake in the testing,” Sims said, “so I think you’ll probably see schools coming up with some creative ways to reflect that the following year.”

That would be a local policy decision and not a KDE recommendation, she added.

While there are just four end-of-course exams this year, more are expected to be added. ACT’s QualityCore system comprises four each of math and English courses, three science courses and one social studies course.

“There is a desire or an intention to add four more in year two,” Sims said. “That would not change the accountability structure.”
The number of exams added ultimately depends on funding. KDE has requested money for four more course exams in the new state budget that will be drafted in the 2012 legislative session.

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