Courier-Journal, Louisville, June 22, 2016
Up to $345M at risk in science testing dispute
by Kirsten Clark
In an ongoing dispute over science testing, the U.S. Department of Education has warned Kentucky Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt that it could withhold up to $345 million in funding for disabled and economically disadvantaged students if the state doesn't make changes to the way its test results are presented.
For the past two school years, Kentucky students taking the state standardized science test haven't received performance level labels, such as "novice," "proficient" and "distinguished," as they do for reading and math assessments. This, federal officials say, is a violation of federal law.
In a letter from the U.S. Department of Education that Senior Adviser Ann Whalen sent Friday, the federal agency warned Pruitt it could withhold the federal funding – roughly 7 percent of the Kentucky Department of Education's overall budget, most of which passes through to school districts – if the state fails to comply.
The funding will be awarded if the state department rolls out changes to its science assessments by the 2017-18 school year – which it plans to do – but officials at the federal agency say the move serves to formally notify the state of the seriousness of the issue.
"These topics have been the subject of numerous discussions between Kentucky staff and staff from the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education," according to Whalen's letter. "The Department remains concerned about Kentucky's lack of compliance over several years."
The absence of performance labels is an issue with both the state's general science assessment, administered to the majority of Kentucky students, as well as the state's alternate science assessment, issued to students in Kentucky with the most severe cognitive impairments.
In Kentucky, students take the science K-PREP in fourth and seventh grades and then are tested again in science as sophomores in high school with the end-of-course biology assessment. The results from these tests are so important, a U.S. department spokeswoman said in an email, because they "help improve educational outcomes and close achievement gaps among historically underserved students and their advantaged peers."
"That increases equity and improves instruction for everyone," she said.
Kentucky Department of Education spokeswoman Nancy Rodriguez said the state has been working to create a new science assessment since 2013, when Kentucky adopted a new set of science standards and, as a result, needed to create a new standardized test aligned with those standards.
Several years ago, the federal education department agreed to a proposal by then-state Education Commissioner Terry Holliday: while the state developed that assessment, Kentucky students would take a norm-referenced science assessment – where students could see how they performed relative to other students – but they would not receive performance level labels.
Since that time, federal guidelines and personnel have changed, Rodriguez said, although Kentucky has continued to administer the science test as it had been given permission to. Last month, Whalen informed Pruitt the state was no longer in compliance with federal guidelines and had two options: administer the old test, which is not aligned to the current standards, or continue administering the norm-referenced test but create performance levels.
Rodriguez said the state plans to pilot a new science assessment in spring 2017 and fully implement the new test during the 2017-18 school year.
Pruitt has repeatedly expressed his support of the new Every Student Succeeds Act, but has said he feels what the U.S. Department of Education is asking Kentucky to do values compliance over quality. In a May 16 letter to U.S. Education Secretary John King, Pruitt expressed concern that the federal agency had insisted it "implement science assessments and performance levels that do not measure Kentucky's actual science standards."
Pruitt's "point of view is they want us to check a box to say we do it," Rodriguez said. "For him, it's, 'I can't in good conscience do that.'"
Pruitt is scheduled to testify before the U.S. House Education and Workforce Committee at 9 a.m. Thursday in Washington, D.C., a committee spokesman confirmed.