Meeting Kentucky Standards Will Take More Than Tests
Kentucky’s goals and standards call for students to become skilled in communication, teamwork, problem-solving, scientific investigation, artistic performance, and civic participation. Kentucky’s tests do not match those ambitions. I rise today to argue that new, local, citizen-supported systems can move us forward on our full standards and expectations.
The Breadth of Kentucky’s Goals and Standards
Kentucky’s bold, big picture of what students need for success is clear in KRS 158.6451, including goals for our students to:
- “Become responsible members of a family, work group, or community, including demonstrating effectiveness in community service”
- “Think and solve problems in school situations and in a variety of situations they will encounter in life”
- “Connect and integrate experiences and new knowledge from all subject matter fields with what they have previously learned and build on past learning experiences to acquire new information through various media sources”
- “Express their creative talents and interests in visual arts, music, dance, and dramatic arts”
The Kentucky Academic Standards add potent detail to those goals. For example:
- Our reading standards call for students to “gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source and integrate the information for the purposes of analysis, reflection and research while avoiding plagiarism.”
- Our math standards are built on eight mathematical practices, under which students are expected to “make sense of problems and persevere in solving them” and “construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.”
- Our science standards call for equipping students to “Design, evaluate, and/or refine a solution to a complex real-world problem, based on scientific knowledge, student-generated sources of evidence, prioritized criteria, and tradeoff considerations.”
- Our visual and performing arts standards specify that students should be ready to create and perform in the arts, as well as to respond and connect to work developed by others.
The Narrowness of Kentucky Assessments
Our statewide assessments don’t check for those broader capacities. They ask students to answer multiple choice and brief constructed-response items in a limited time. Working that way, reading items can’t ask students to find multiple sources on their own, check their credibility, and then develop their own integrated analysis. Math items can’t have the complexity of real life math work and they can’t possibly require significant perseverance or anything like a full argument or a critique of someone else’s. Science items can’t involve complex problems and student-generated evidence. Those kinds of work can require hours, days, and sometimes weeks: timed test items can’s show those capacities.
Further, for teamwork, artistic production, and community service, meaningful assessment in short periods of time is clearly out of the question.
In the 1990s, Kentucky considered assessment models that might have met those challenges. We tried portfolios, where students could include work done over sustained periods. We briefly used performance events that required communication and teamwork on hands-on challenges followed by independent individual reporting on results.
Then we dropped those ideas. Performance events were nearly impossible to field test. Portfolio expectations frustrated teachers, parents, and students. We underinvested in professional development, community understanding, and mutual trust. And at the time, we wanted good assessment results to lead to financial rewards and bad ones to put jobs at risk, and none of the designs we tried were precise enough for that kind of work.
A New Idea
Local Evidence Backed by Citizen Engagement
I think we can still achieve the breadth of our goals and standards. To do it, we need stop expecting state assessments to do all the work for us.
Instead, we need to build up local displays and local evaluations of the other kinds of student work we value. That’ll be messy. Identifying strengths and needed improvements in complex work (research, investigations, solutions to problems, and so on) will always invite more debate than standardized tests. That can be okay if we’re committed to working on it, showing each other our efforts, and collaborating to get closer to a shared understanding of what kind of student work measures up.
In multiple places around the state, efforts of this sort are already underway. Districts are building profiles of the graduates they want are defining the expectations. Schools implementing doing project-based learning and sharing out the projects. Jefferson County’s Backpack initiative is working on a systematic approach to students showing some of the capacities they’ve identified as important.
I don’t mean those efforts are perfect. I do mean that perfection is overrated: we’ll do this kind of work better if we expect it to include bumps and potholes and complex questions and long conversations.
I also don’t mean we should drop statewide assessments. I do mean we should get their results back into proper perspective, as partial indications of part of what we want students to know and do.
Crucially, educators can’t build and sustain bold efforts on the fullness of Kentucky standards on their own. Other citizens, including parents and neighbors and artists and business leaders, must join in defining, defending, and celebrating the work. That engagement is the best way to build up local commitment and investment in challenges that are as hard as they are important.
Let’s stand up for our full standards. Let’s join hands to make our full expectations happen for our rising generation.