Kentucky’s seven-year education reform effort, which rewards teachers with cash bonuses if their school’s test scores improve, has been marred by evidence of cheating by teachers to improve student scores, by highly subjective portfolio assessments, and by miscalculated test scores. In July, a state panel recommended changing the system “to benefit the school and the students” rather than to provide bonuses to teachers. Despite these problems, a testing watchdog service rates the Kentucky system as one of the best in the nation, needing only “modest improvement.”
The Blue Grass State’s school reform woes were the subject of a September 2 front page story by Wall Street Journal reporter Steve Stecklow, who described how the complex rewards system was instituted after the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled that district-by-district spending inequities violated the state constitution. Schools are rewarded if their scores go up and censured if they go down. School scores are based largely on how well students perform on an annual test and on grades awarded to student writing portfolios.
In 1993, state auditors found that teachers at 96 percent of audited schools had inflated the grades awarded for student portfolios by an average of more than 35 points on a 140-point scale. Since 1993, 22 out of 60 allegations of cheating by teachers or administrators on tests or on portfolio assessments have been confirmed.
At one elementary school, several teachers accused colleagues of cheating on student portfolio assessments when the school’s score jumped from below average to one of the highest in the state. In a sworn statement to state investigators, one of the teachers, Barbara Kitchen, said that student “abilities were not reflective of what their portfolio scores indicated.” At another school, students who had supposedly produced typewritten portfolios over 70 pages long could not read them.
Test administration was also lax, investigators found. Social studies teachers at one high school prepared a tip sheet for students after seeing test questions beforehand. Then, during the exam, test administrators explained questions to the students and gave them “inappropriate breaks.”
To compound the state’s assessment troubles, errors were discovered in the program used by the state testing contractor for calculating some test scores, leading many schools to be misclassified. As a result, in June the state terminated its testing contract with Advanced Systems in Measurement & Evaluation Inc. of Dover, New Hampshire.
The National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, takes a markedly different view of the Kentucky testing system for measuring student achievement. In a new report that rates testing programs in 47 states, FairTest finds that only one state–Vermont–has a better assessment system than Kentucky. Compared to Vermont’s “model system,” Kentucky’s state assessment system–along with those of Colorado, Connecticut, Maine, Missouri, and New Hampshire–just “needs modest improvements,” according to the report.
FairTest assigns state assessment systems to one of five levels: “a model system,” “needs modest improvements,” “needs some significant improvements,” “needs many major improvements,” and “needs a complete overhaul.” FairTest is a leading critic of traditional standardized tests, advocating instead the use of performance assessments, where students construct responses or perform demonstrations.
Although Kentucky law mandates a transition to such performance-based tests by 1996, that transition has not yet been achieved.
George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].