Testing the Limits or Limiting the Tests?

By Zirkel, Perry A. | Phi Delta Kappan, December 1998 | Go to article overview
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Testing the Limits or Limiting the Tests?


Zirkel, Perry A., Phi Delta Kappan


IN THE WAKE of the Kentucky Supreme Court's sweeping school finance decision in 1989, the state legislature enacted a comprehensive school reform statute that became effective on 13 July 1990.1 One of the mandates was that the state board of education create and implement "a statewide, primarily performance-based assessment program to ensure school accountability for student achievement" of the seven goals codified from the court's decision. These goals included, for example, "communications skills necessary to function in a complex and changing civilization," "knowledge to make economic, social, and political choices," and "sufficient self-knowledge and knowledge of [the student's] mental and physical wellness."2

The legislation further required that, by the 1991-92 school year, an interim assessment test be given to students in grades 4, 8, and 12 and that the permanent assessment start no later than the 1995-96 school year. Thus the state board contracted with an outside organization to create the Kentucky Instructional Results Information System (KIRIS) exam, which assesses student skills in reading, math, writing, science, and social studies.3

The primary purpose of the KIRIS test is to evaluate the progress of schools, not individual students. First, scores for individual students are categorized into performance levels, ranging from "novice" (0 points) to "distinguished" (140 points). Next, through a fairly complicated formula, the results for individual students are computed into an overall school rating. The raw data include not only these individual scores but also other school performance indicators, such as attendance, dropout, and retention rates. Those schools in which students show overall improvement on the KIRIS test receive financial rewards, and those in which the composite ratings drop receive sanctions, such as having the staff placed on probation.

Early in 1994, in anticipation of the upcoming administration of the KIRIS tests, the parents of Chad Triplett, a high school senior, and his sister Tracey, an eighth-grader, informed the Livingston County School System that they did not want their children to participate in the testing. The state board of education advised the Livingston administration that the school would be assigned a "novice" level for any child whose KIRIS data were missing. Consequently, on 14 February 1994, the Livingston school board adopted a policy requiring all students to complete the KIRIS assessment before advancing to the next grade or graduating.

Immediately on learning of the policy, Mrs. Triplett requested to review the tests. On 16 and 18 February, the school authorities allowed her to examine them. But they did not allow her to take any notes or to make any copies.

Basing their objections primarily on religious grounds, the Tripletts refused to allow Chad and Tracey to participate in the spring KIRIS testing. As a result, though they met all other requirements, Chad failed to graduate, and Tracey was not promoted to the ninth grade.

On 25 May 1994, the Tripletts filed suit against the Livingston board, seeking a permanent injunction to prevent the board from not allowing Chad to graduate and Tracey to be promoted. They also sought a declaratory judgment that the testing requirement violated various constitutional rights, including their rights to privacy, to freedom of religion, and to parental liberty and their rights under certain statutes, such as the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which is commonly known as FERPA.

After receiving affidavits from both parties, including voluminous expert opinions concerning the KIRIS test, the court granted the school board's motion for summary judgment, effectively dismissing the Tripletts' suit. However, the court ruled in their favor in terms of a public right to view the KIRIS exam questions. Both parties appealed to the state's appellate court.

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Testing the Limits or Limiting the Tests?
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