Friday, March 20, 2009

Death of an imaginary playmate

In case anyone doesn't know Martin Cothran, he teaches at Highlands Latin School, writes logic and rhetoric texts, manages an online academy, and analyzes policy for the Family Foundation of Kentucky. For most of two decades, he’s spun wondrous tales of an imaginary KERA-dragon.

Initially, Martin’s dragon tempted small children with dangerous elixirs called “valued outcomes.” Next, it ate several hundred educators when it caught them teaching spelling, and later still, it set fire to an entire village because a couple of local citizens dared suggest using multiple-choice questions in statewide testing.

The real reform story has been dull by comparison. On valued outcomes, legislators agreed in 1994 not to test for self-sufficiency, teamwork, and other marks of good character. On spelling, my oldest started waking me up for pre-dawn drills in 1995, and I know exactly which word my youngest missed at his schoolwide bee in 2007. On multiple-choice, we started accountability testing in 1992 and were working on adding multiple-choice items by 1996.

In Martin’s looking-glass commonwealth, the KERA-dragon cast educational spells far beyond the skills of the left-wing sorcerers of Berkeley, California, and Cambridge, Massachusetts.

In our real state, our elected leaders (from places like Richmond, Prestonsburg, Liberty, Burkesville, and Danville) voted in the Kentucky Education Reform Act. KERA delivered stronger and fairer school funding, reduced political corruption, and vastly improved facilities and technology. It nurtured more focused teachers, better instructional leaders, and a big step up in justified pride in public education. We've still got work ahead to strengthen classroom work, not because the primary program, extended school services, or sustained professional development were mistakes, but because we didn’t put in the hard work to help them succeed.

Martin’s fascinating narrative ended recently, with the final installment ("The Death of KERA") published here at his Vere Loqui blog. I admit to preferring the old song where:
A dragon lives forever but not so little boys
Painted wings and giant rings make way for other toys
Still, if slaying his personal Puff frees Martin to focus on strengthening the schooling he supports, I wish him all the best.

Myself, I'll keep doing my best to build up the public schools of our beloved commonwealth, along with thousands of educators, parents, and engaged citizens. While I’m working on that, I do hope Martin will stop by my own choice of "headquarters." The lights are on, the coffee’s hot, and the (magic-free) muffins are truly delicious.


  1. Susan,

    You wrote, “On multiple-choice, we started accountability testing in 1992 and were working on adding multiple-choice items by 1996.”

    That is not close to correct. Multiple choice questions were included in the very first year of KIRIS testing. I have some samples that were released to the schools a year or two later. In fact, it was a totally incorrect multiple choice question from the 1992 KIRIS that really launched me into studying the assessment.

    However, while multiple choice questions existed in KIRIS right from the start, ideologues at the Kentucky Department of education never counted them in the early accountability index. Those ideologues eventually pulled multiple choice questions completely out of the assessment for a time.
    However, due to pressure from the legislature, fueled in no small measure by the OEA Panel Report of 1995, the KDE started to experiment with them again, but only under duress.

    As I recall, multiple choice questions didn’t count in any Kentucky assessment until CATS started in 1999, and that is probably because the CATS bill pretty much mandated them. There was then, and remains today, significant resistance to this question type at the KDE.

    In any event, the management of the multiple choice questions was one of the biggest foul-ups in the early days of KERA. These questions, modern research shows, definitely have a place in testing. They have always provided better validity and reliability than open-response questions. But, that didn’t matter to some ideology-driven people who were running KERA in the early days.

    By the way, I don’t agree with Martin that reform is over, nor should it be. There were a number of decent things in the act which endure, such things as the anti-nepotism provision, for one great example. But, we made a ton of mistakes, like math portfolios and gross mismanagement of performance events (not doing sample testing on those, which led to their demise, was a really amateur act), to name just a few.

  2. I could have missed the earlier inclusion of multiple-choice items because I was focusing on the discussion of what would be used in school accountability--and released sample tests were harder to come by back when the internet wasn't a daily tool.

    My reference was instead to the fact that multiple-choice items were being developed pilot-tested during 1996 and 1997, with the settled intent of making them part of KIRIS accountability scores.


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