By Madelynn Coldiron
This is the first part of a two-part series
Kentucky school districts are preparing for the first round of testing on new core academic standards this spring, but at the same time they also are practicing for another part of the new accountability formula. But some educators worry that practice may not make perfect.
Program reviews, which will count for 20 percent of the total accountability score starting in the 2012-13 school year, will measure school performance in arts and humanities, practical living and career studies, and writing. This year is practice, or field testing, for all districts. Two other program review areas, world languages and K-3 education, similarly will be phased in starting with field testing next year.
“I think the concern I’m hearing from some people is that the districts might kind of put them on the back burner more than they should, because there’s not going to be an assessment of those until 2012-13,” said Mayfield Independent Superintendent Lonnie Burgett, who also heads the Kentucky Association of School Administrators.
Instead of measuring student performance in those areas with a question-and-answer standardized test, program reviews will evaluate how much all students have access to arts and the other areas, how they demonstrate knowledge of them and to what extent those subjects are integrated into all content areas in natural ways.
But it’s the “who” of program reviews rather than the “what” that also is causing concern. Teams within each school will conduct the reviews, and their work will then be checked over by a district team before the reviews are submitted to the state education department.
“It sort of goes back to what we had with the old portfolio system before – you grade your own portfolios with your own staff members, and how valid is what you’re doing?” said Joe Henderson, instructional supervisor for Mayfield Independent Schools.
“Obviously, you’re going to have that concern – high-stakes accountability just adds to it,” said State Board of Education Vice Chairman Roger Marcum, a former superintendent. But Marcum said most districts will be conscientious and will view program reviews as an opportunity for improvement.
“Anything you do yourself, there’s always going to be some subjectivity,” said Rae McEntyre, who heads the program review team at the state education department.
But McEntyre said the rubric the teams are using has been designed to fairly evaluate the programs, even though they may look very different from school to school. The review has been tweaked to reflect the three accountability levels: distinguished, proficient and needs improvement.
Hancock County Middle was one of 48 schools that piloted the program review process last year. Former principal, now district instructional supervisor Gina Biever said while the review is somewhat subjective, “I think it’s objective enough with the criteria that you are able to get a good look at your program and know if it needs to improve or not. I hardly think it would be fair or equitable for somebody to come in and judge my program if they don’t know what it looks like in my school.”
The education department stresses that the reviews are supposed to be ongoing throughout the year, with a snapshot in time taken for the annual written reviews.
School teams are to be made up of teachers from within and outside the review areas, along with other diverse stakeholders, such as parents or community representatives. The team’s review must be approved by the school council before being forwarded to the district level, where a similarly diverse team will look over the review before sending it on to KDE. The method the district uses to check school program reviews is a local decision, McEntrye said, but the department recommends the district team spend a day on-site at each school.
That was the topic of discussion at a recent meeting of western Kentucky instructional supervisors, Mayfield’s Henderson said. The concern is the amount of time this would take in districts with many schools, he said.
The state education department will audit a limited number of school program reviews each year – about 14, McEntyre said.
“The subjectivity is a concern with us,” said Hancock County Superintendent Scott Lewis. “The other part of that is does the state have the manpower to come out and check program reviews?”
Marcum acknowledged the manpower issue. To effectively implement program reviews, hold districts accountable and encourage improvements in those program areas, he said, “it has to be monitored at the state level. There needs to be troops on the ground and going out into the districts.”
Funding also is an issue at the local level. School councils are expected to make policy decisions – perhaps about improvements – based on the results of the program reviews. Like the new standards, program reviews will require some professional development – yet state funding for training has been cut, Lewis noted.
Resources are limited, Marcum said. “Just trying to maintain what you’ve been doing is difficult enough. Making it better is even more difficult. More with less only goes so far – that’s the struggle in all of this,” he said.