Policy & Data People Perspective of Kentucky School Accountability

by | Jul 16, 2018 | Accountability, Ed., Featured, Regular Ed

Kentucky’s new education accountability plan – thoughts for policy and data people

Geology students learn to distinguish among many different kinds of rocks, many of which appear exactly the same.

Diorite, tonalite, monzonite, syenite, anorthosite – you could call them granite. You would be correct. They are ever so slightly different kinds of granite.

My petrology professor lightheartedly called this phenomenon “job security for geologists,” but in truth, these ever so slightly different characteristics tell important stories*.

I think about granite a lot when reading state education accountability plans.

Through these plans, state leaders work to distinguish among many different kinds of schools and districts. This helps them tell stories to inform their own actions to provide schools and districts with support, but also to inform educators, parent and community leaders, and local policymakers about needs and opportunities for action.

Over the years, I have grown wary of accountability plan complexity. In the NCLB era, those of us in education policy roles expended time and energy on complex questions about use of confidence intervals and definitions of “full academic year”. It sometimes seemed that we spent more time on the rules designed to help us tell stories (or from some perspectives, obscure them), than on figuring out what it would take to change stories for the benefit of our children and youth.

Yet, I try to remind myself of how important it is to get these stories right. And as geologists have found with granite, it can take comfort with complexity to do so.

Over the next few months, Kentucky’s evolution to a new accountability system will give us more opportunities to get comfortable with policy details and new ways of using data.

I anticipate that the teachers over at kyedpolicy.org will dive into the details and data. State and local policymakers and education administrators, legislative policy staff, and policy advocates will know all the in’s and out’s of the system. I also hope a few parent and community leaders will join the community. We’re better with a more diverse circle of friends.

For my beloved edu-policy wonks, here are a few details to master and contribute to in the next few months:

  • Standard-setting. Usually when we refer to standards-setting, we mean the process to work with committees to translate scale scores to achievement levels on statewide assessments (e.g. novice, apprentice, proficient, and distinguished). This summer, KDE will expand the concept to apply to the new star ratings for schools and districts. KDE and its expert partners at the National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment (NCIEA) will work with a committee on a defined process to describe performance for schools and districts at each of the five star levels. NCIEA has published a brief on what this process could entail, along with case studies on how it has worked in two other states. I anticipate that KDE and the standards-setting committee will need to focus not only on the substance of the recommendations, but on how to ensure transparent communication about their meaning and impact.
  • Although the new accountability plan puts weight on a wide variety of data indicators, most of the system relies on student assessment results. The statewide assessment landscape in Kentucky has quite a few changes afoot. A few months ago, 4th and 7th grade students took new operational summative assessments in science. This next spring, high school students will take new end-of-course assessments in English II, Algebra II, and Biology. It appears we are close to approving new standards in reading, writing, and mathematics. What changes will we see to 3rd – 8th grade tests in these subjects? At a recent Kentucky Board of Education meeting, members discussed new minimum competency tests in reading and math that students would have to pass for a high school diploma. Truly understanding how assessment changes will affect the accountability system is an important job. Equally important is to make sure the accountability system itself doesn’t affect assessments in ways that dampen their usefulness for other purposes like signaling students’ preparation for the next grade or for college/career.
  • CSI/TSI determinations. This fall, KDE will make determinations for schools in comprehensive support and improvement status, and for targeted support and improvement status. They will use data from the 2017-18 school year. There is a lot to watch (and inform) about this process. I am especially interested in the implications of KDE’s plan to use results from the 11th grade ACT college admissions test for high school assessment data, as students did not take end-of-course assessments this past year.
  • Those of us who have been around awhile remember the annual Accountability Workbooks from the NCLB era. The U.S. Department of Education posted a document from each state that detailed all the rules it used to make accountability determinations. In my view, if a state gives us an accountability system that includes many different indicators and rules, the state needs to be extra transparent about exactly how all of it works to turn into ratings. All of these details seem arcane, but they can (and have) affected students’ lives and will again.

Finally, I want to give my kudos to everyone at KDE and well beyond who has worked so hard on Kentucky’s new plan. The work to distinguish among schools and districts to tell important, accurate, and useful stories is not easy, but worth it so we can all contribute to the work of improving opportunities for students.

To my fellow wonks, in today’s ESSA era, let’s commit to 1) increase the circle of those who understand the details and their implications and 2) not let ourselves get so lost in the intricacies of the rules that we neglect spending time on what matters most – improving opportunities and outcomes for Kentucky’s children and youth.

* Including about the Earth’s moon, thanks to astronauts who embraced geology.

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