Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Kentucky's Conflicting Reform Principles: High-Stakes School Accountability and Student Performance Assessment

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Kentucky's Conflicting Reform Principles: High-Stakes School Accountability and Student Performance Assessment

Article excerpt

High-stakes accountability in Kentucky has focused attention on important questions about teaching and learning, but it has not supplied the answers to those questions, the authors point out. Those answers must come from the responses of teaching professionals, released from the narrow constraints of a bureaucratically controlled, high-stakes testing system.

Ask almost any teacher in Kentucky about the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA), and invariably the response will be about the Kentucky Instructional Results Information System (KIRIS). While KERA has resulted in many progressive changes, including performance-based assessments of students, an appointed (rather than elected) chief state school officer, an ungraded primary program, and a new finance formula, KIRIS, the assessment and accountability component of KERA, has commanded everyone's attention.

And no wonder. KIRIS turns the results of student performance assessments into a "school score" that the state uses to determine rewards or sanctions for teachers and administrators. If the score exceeds the state's expectation for a school, the teachers and administrators can receive substantial bonuses. If the score is not high enough or does not continue to improve over time, the teachers and administrators can be placed on probation, and the school can be taken over by the state.

Through KIRIS, Kentucky is testing the combination of two distinct approaches to education reform: performance-based instruction and assessment of students, a strategy embraced enthusiastically by many reform-minded educators; and a high-stakes accountability system, thought by many to be necessary to persuade teachers to try new instructional practices. It is becoming increasingly clear that this linkage undermines the instructional benefits of student performance assessment and forces teachers to focus on whatever is thought to raise test scores rather than on instruction aimed at addressing individual student needs. In this article, we describe some of the troubling effects emerging from this linkage and propose a direction for redefining school accountability in a way that can sustain the principles implicit in student performance assessment.

The Idea of KIRIS

The central and clearly stated belief underlying KERA is that all students can learn at high levels. This view of the mission of schooling represents a dramatic shift from the factory model of teaching, testing, arraying students along the A-through-F grading scale, and then moving on to the next part of the curriculum. Instead, schools are not just supposed to teach but to ensure learning.

Ensuring learning means emphasizing new instructional approaches that require problem solving, reasoning, and communication in real-life situations - what has come to be called authentic teaching and learning. This approach, in turn, requires an assessment system designed to go beyond traditional standardized testing, which does little to address such authentic skills. Thus KERA mandated the development of a new testing system that would be "primarily performance based."

The law also specified that this performance-based approach to assessment be coupled with a high-stakes accountability system intended to compel teachers to embrace performance assessment and compatible instructional strategies and materials in order to enable all students to learn at high levels. How has this reform strategy played out over time?

The Evolution of KIRIS

At best, the evolution of KIRIS in the past six years reveals how initial plans - especially those developed in a complex, systemic reform effort - need revision when tested in the real world. At worst, the story is a powerful lesson about how such a high-stakes accountability system can distort and undermine the original visions for effective curriculum, instruction, and assessment practices. Changes in state policies and practices with regard to KIRIS have been influenced by six connected elements: outcome definition, student assessment, local control of curriculum, accountability index, expected rate of improvement, and rewards and sanctions. …

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