Monday, February 19, 2018

Six questions for new statewide tests | Better tests, better learning

| Post by Cory Curl |

Note: We're wrapping up our discussion of what's new and what's around the corner for student tests in Kentucky, focusing on issues of interest to families and communities. Previously, we've explored how tests can help students learn, how they can inform teachers in the classroom, how they can clarify expectations, and how they can be used to benchmark performance to schools across the world. Today, we tackle issues about tests primarily used to measure student learning.

  • Learning
  • Informing
  • Clarifying
  • Benchmarking
  • Measuring

  • Kentucky's families and communities will soon have the opportunity to discover more about elementary and middle school student learning in science. This spring, students in the 4th and 7th grades will be the first to take the state's new science "summative" test.

    (See this post by Susan Perkins Weston from October 2016 for more background on the science assessment system's through-course tasks and classroom-embedded assessments.)

    We don't yet know what the test will look like for students and how results will be given to parents and to the public, but the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) website promises more information this month.

    I'm excited to learn these details not only for the science test but as a hint about what's to come for Kentucky's overall suite of elementary and middle school statewide assessments in reading and writing, mathematics, and social studies.

    Kentucky is poised to apply what it's learned from the development of the new science assessment system, as well as what other states have learned in the last few years in developing new statewide tests. To serve as effective advocates for their children and all children, Kentucky's families and community leaders need solid, comparable information about student learning in the areas critical for their future success in college, careers, and civic leadership.

    Why does the state require these tests? The purpose of is to measure how well students have learned the knowledge, skills, and practices articulated in Kentucky’s academic standards. The measurements we get from the tests are reported to students, families, and their teachers as numbers (scale scores) and as categories (novice, apprentice, proficient, or distinguished). These scores and categories provide information that can be used, along with evidence from a student’s work in class, to answer big questions such as: does the student need extra support to be ready for challenging work in the next grade or in high school? Because the state’s tests measure learning in the same away for students across the state, families can be assured that these scores mean the same thing across schools and districts.

    The information from these tests holds value beyond an individual student and their family. When put together, the scores can illuminate patterns and trends that help people who lead schools, school districts, and the state make better decisions about all the resources that go into student learning.

    You can think about state tests as a ruler used to measure pieces of fabric for a quilt. Not the fabric or the quilt itself, but simply the measurement tool.

    Simply? Those of you who have been in a quilting shop recently may have discovered that rulers vary a great deal in terms of quality. They come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, and some have quite advanced measurement systems. Quilters know that measuring with accuracy and consistency matters.

    So too, state tests have varied in terms of quality and other critical attributes. Here are a few questions to ask about Kentucky's new statewide tests:
    1. What information will families and communities have about student learning in science and in other subjects, and for individual students and for schools and districts? By when? What information will teachers have? How will teachers and families talk together about student results?
    2. How will the tests provide meaningful information about student readiness or need for extra support for their next steps, such as the next grade?
    3. How well do the tests capture the full set of Kentucky’s academic standards, not only those standards that are easier to evaluate?
    4. Do the tests use a variety of strategies to evaluate student learning at different degrees of challenge?
    5. Does the state provide transparent, public information about the test, including information about the test design and released items from previous tests?
    6. How have educators from K-12 and higher education, as well as other critical shareholders, been involved in the development of the test? Has it been reviewed by outside assessment experts?

    You can find more about questions to evaluate test quality through these resources:

    This blog series has explored five different rationales for student testing – to help students learn, to inform educators, to clarify expectations, to benchmark performance, and to measure learning to help leaders make better decisions. But learning is at the heart.

    I leave you with a quote from Ron Berger, chief academic officer of EL Education, from an article in The 74 Million:

    “A defining thing about our schools is the quality of our work. In education, what’s talked about mostly are the test scores. Our schools do well on test scores; otherwise, we couldn’t stay robust in our work. However, what inspires kids is not those test scores. What inspires kids is their beautiful writing, their beautiful math work, their beautiful project work. They do work that they’re truly proud of.”

    Monday, February 5, 2018

    Future Unclear For Key K-12 Equity Programs

    | Post By Susan Perkins Weston |

    Budget recommendations so far offer few clues to the financial future of seven P-12 programs that target support to Kentucky students with distinctive needs:
    • Extended school services programs that provide additional instructional time outside the regular school day for students at risk of not meeting academic expectations. ESS funds may also be used during the regular school day with permission of the commissioner of education.
    • Family resource and youth services centers that offer preventive and referral services to address student needs that could interfere with their learning.
    • Gifted and talented funding that supports individualized services for students who are able to perform at exceptionally high levels, based on general intellectual aptitude, specific academic aptitude, capacity for creative or divergent thinking, psychosocial or leadership skills, visual or performing arts talents, or any combination of those abilities.
    • Preschool that prepares four-year-olds with low family incomes and for three- and four-year-olds with disabilities to enter school ready to learn.
    • Read to Achieve grants that fund reading diagnostic and intervention programs for struggling primary school program students.
    • Safe schools funding that supports alternative school services for students whose needs cannot be met in traditional classrooms, taking varied approaches to remediate academic performance, improve behavior, or provide an enhanced learning experience.
    • State agency children funding that provides instruction and support for children who are educated in group homes, juvenile justice detention centers, mental health day treatments, residential treatment programs, community-based shelter programs or hospital settings after being assigned to state custody or supervision. These dollars support educational programs that offer a longer school year, intensive staffing ratios, and other services.

    These programs get no individual mention in Governor Bevin’s budget recommendations or the initial version of House Bill 200, this year’s budget legislation. They aren’t on the list of seventy programs to be eliminated, but they also are not shown with line items saying what each will receive.

    If the House follows past practice, it will fill in the line items during committee work on the budget. Sometime in the next month or so, we’ll see an explicit plan for what support each of these seven important programs will receive.

    Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that five of those seven programs have taken substantial cuts over the last decade, as shown in the chart above. Only the preschool program has seen real growth in funding, while family resource and youth service centers have seen an increase far too small to keep up with inflation.

    It’s also worth noting that current preschool funding is not close to adequate. As shown in the Prichard Committee’s recent report, “Building Blocks: The Kentucky Early Childhood Cost of Quality Study,” current funding is not even enough to support programs that meet minimum state preschool requirements.

    Bottom line: for Kentucky’s pursuit of excellence with equity, some very important funding figures are still “to be determined” in the current budget process.

    Thursday, February 1, 2018

    Health, Transportation Cuts, and Where They Could Hit Hardest

    | Post by Susan Perkins Weston |

    Governor Bevin’s proposed budget would require school districts to pay larger shares of transportation and health costs out of local funds. To explore those changes, I used 2016-17 data to estimate what new costs each district would face, and I compared those figures to the fund balance each district had on hand at the end of June 2017. That approach suggests that:
    • Six districts could wipe their whole fund balance to pay the first year of added costs, putting them in the red by June 2019
    • Nineteen more districts could empty their fund balances by June 2020 to pay the first and second year of costs
    The potential harm is clustered in our eastern counties, in rural south-central Kentucky, and at the western tip of the commonwealth, as shown in the map below. The pattern has much in common with maps of other economic challenges, and it shows these how these cuts can make those challenges worse. Bluntly, the impact on students will differ by region.
    The districts where the 2017 fund balance could not cover estimated 2019 added local transportation and health costs are Ashland, Elliott, Fulton, Leslie, Pike, and Powell.

    Districts where that balance could not cover estimated 2019 and 2020 added costs are Bell, Breathitt, Carter, Clinton, Edmonson, Fairview, Graves, Green, Hart, Lewis, Ludlow, Metcalfe, Paris, Raceland Ind, Russell, Wayne, Whitley, Williamsburg, and Wolfe.

    Yes, these are estimates, relying on data from last year. Yes, the districts in question may have bigger balances at the end of this year. Yes, they can aim to cut other costs and avoid insolvency over the next two years. And yes, I’m confident they’ll work to minimize the impact on student learning from those reductions.

    Nevertheless, the danger here is serious, and the danger isn’t spread evenly over the state. The proposed health and transportation changes would likely push some districts into insolvency each year and the harm would fall on some Kentucky students more that others, based on where they live. That's very bad news for efforts to build excellence with equity statewide.

    Notes for number lovers and policy wonks: 
    1. The transportation estimates reflected only the gap between 2017 enacted funding and the 2019 recommendation. That is, the analysis did not consider the transportation costs that state underfunding has forced districts to pay for many years.

    2. The health estimates reflected the gap between requested funding and recommended funding for each year.

    3. Prorating reductions takes the most from students in districts that need the greatest state help. I used that method because the state has used it repeatedly. I consider it both indecent and unconstitutional, but it's still what past practice leads me to expect.