Tuesday, September 13, 2011

State school assessment personnel face tough questioning before legislative meeting

Unprecedented review ordered

Members of the Kentucky Legislature’s small but powerful Education Assessment and Accountability Review Subcommittee (EAARS) called representatives from the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) to task today for the proposals for the state’s new public school assessment and accountability program.

Legislators were unhappy about several important issues, including:

• Proposed regulation lacks important information -- Review requested
• Scoring scheme could hide actual proficiency rates
• No emphasis on math and science
• State Board added items not authorized in the legislation

Key areas of legislative concern include:

Proposed regulation lacks important information

Kentucky Senator Vernie McGaha was very unhappy with the technical quality of the draft regulation that the KDE personnel provided. This regulation does not include the full details and formula for the calculation of the final school accountability index, and the KDE personnel indicated that there are no plans to add such a discussion before the regulation is brought to the EAARS for a formal review and approval in October. In fact, the KDE personnel indicated they needed a regulation to conduct the testing in year one, but they could not develop the final scoring formula before they examine the results from that first year of testing.

McGaha was not convinced this approach would be legal. The senator said that an incomplete regulation would not comply with state laws on regulations. Then, in a surprise move McGaha asked for Donna Little, a staff member of the legislature’s Administration Regulations Review Committee, to come forward to comment on this problem.

Ms. Little said that Kentucky Revised Statutes Section 13A, which deals with the general requirements for all administrative regulations, requires that regulations must be specific and must cover all requirements.

McGaha then pointed out that this regulation would not undergo the normal Administrative Regulations Review Committee process because of a special exception passed in 1998 that says all regulations pertaining to testing go before the EAARS, instead. However, EAARS does not have much expertise on technical issues regarding regulations.

McGaha pointed out that this could create legal problems and eventual enforcement issues for the pending regulation if the process were not compliant with statutes such as 13A. McGaha said the issue could best be defined by a review by experts on Kentucky regulations such as Ms. Little.

Then, suggesting an unprecedented action, McGaha asked the chair of the EAARS to ascertain if all parties would be agreeable to have such a review conducted by Administrative Regulations Review experts, and all agreed. It was decided that Ms. Little will do this review, which could confirm a serious technical problem with the proposed testing regulation.

As a note, long before the Bluegrass Institute came along I was very critical of the 1998 legislation that disrupted the normal regulations review process by moving the authority for testing regulations review to the EAARS committee rather than keeping it with the long-standing Administrative Regulations Review Committee. I pointed out back then that the EAARS would not be likely to ever have the technical expertise to handle this function well.

Now, it looks like my prediction could be coming home to roost.

Stay tuned for more on this absolutely unprecedented situation, which certainly highlights problems with doing regulations review in EAARS instead of where the legislative expertise really lies.

• Scoring scheme could hide actual proficiency rates

Senator McGaha also questioned a proposed system to award bonus points to schools that have a lot of students who score “Distinguished” on the new tests. McGaha asked if that meant the published scores wouldn’t really reflect the true proficiency rate in a school. He was not happy to hear that the true rate indeed might be obscured when bonus points are earned.

• Where’s the emphasis on math and science?

Senator McGaha wasn’t the only legislator who had problems with the new assessment proposals. Kentucky Senator Ken Winters, who also is the chair of the Senate Education Committee, was not happy with the fact that the proposed scoring scheme treats math and science, two subjects of critical importance to Kentucky’s economic future, no differently than other subjects. The proposed scoring plan could allow schools to escape consequences despite low performance in these crucial areas. Winters was really hot about this problem, mentioning it twice during the meeting to be sure the KDE staff got the message.

There is a fix to this problem that should not be too difficult to implement. KDE’s planned accountability program, which develops just one final school accountability index to be matched against the standards, could go forward with one important addition. There needs to be separate tracking of performance for key areas, which could include math, science, and perhaps target minority scores, too. If a school does OK overall but trips over the specific performance standard for math, science, or other selected items, then that school would face consequences and become eligible for assistance.

• State Board added items not authorized in the legislation

Senator McGaha raised a lot of pointed questions about two major assessment items that were added to those specified in Senate Bill 1 from the 2009 Regular Legislative Session. That bill stipulates how the new assessment program is to be organized.

The bill says nothing about doing evaluations, called Program Reviews, of the Ungraded Primary Program and in World Languages. Those two program review items were added by the Kentucky Board of Education.

At issue is the question of whether the state board has the authority to add these major items to the assessment. There was sharp disagreement on this from Kevin Brown, the chief legal counsel at KDE and Senators McGaha and Winters.

There are important fiscal implications in the World Languages provision. Many districts don’t have many, if any language teachers on staff. If this requirement is added to the assessment, it could basically become an unfunded mandate for those districts, a real hot button issue right now with funding tight in every area of the state’s economy.

The Ungraded Primary item, which was renamed the K – 3 Review by KDE, could create pressure to force schools to take up the largely ineffective multi-age classroom idea again. There is an element within our education establishment that loves this concept, but it has not worked out well in practice. In fact, if you look at the “Ungraded Primary” section starting on Page 50 in our “KERA (1990 – 2010): What Have We Learned” report, you will find interesting evidence that the degree of implementation of multi-age classrooms has no notable impact on student performance. Primary was a wistful, fad idea that just didn’t work.

But, some educators simply will never take no for an answer. Now, they want to force Primary down local districts’ and schools’ throats again. That might just create the biggest fight for this assessment program of all. There is no question that this review item was not included in the legislation, and I suspect a lot of people don’t like this assessment idea. That might open up a very interesting legal fight between the KDE, the Kentucky Board of Education, and the legislature. Since the Kentucky Supreme Court says that the education buck stops at the legislature’s door, this fight might be interesting to watch indeed.

To close this rather long, but important blog, I will end with a quote from Senator McGaha, “Don’t assume anything.”

He directed that comment to the regulatory language issue, but I think it applies equally well to the entire process of creating our new assessment program. The fat lady definitely has not sung on this one, though I think there are some good ideas in the KDE plan, but tweaking, and elimination of a few “add-ons” is needed.

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