Like many schools in the persistently poor Appalachian region of eastern Kentucky, Sandy Hook Elementary traditionally had to do without or had to do with somebody else’s castoffs. For years, Sandy Hook and other schools in Elliott County routinely received truckloads of worn, outdated school supplies from around the country, recalls Principal Claudette Green.

“It was like other people’s trash, that’s what we had,” says Green, a native of Sandy Hook.

Before 1990, the school’s desks, globes, maps and encyclopedias were typically 25 to 30 years old. The district provided almost no time or money for staff training. In an area where half the adults usually are unemployed and where poverty is a way of life, Elliott County Public Schools spent $2,896 per pupil during the 1989-90 school year, far below the national average of $4,896. Many people considered Sandy Hook’s students throwaway children who weren’t expected to exceed society’s low expectations.

Today, Sandy Hook is one of the biggest success stories of the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA), a sweeping, six-year-old initiative that has tried to level the playing field by sharing the wealth, raising educational standards and holding schools accountable for student achievement. At the heart of this massive restructuring effort is a high-stakes accountability plan that requires schools to show steady progress toward a 20-year goal of having every student performing at a “proficient” level. Gone are the days when a school could rely on some students to ace the multiple-choice questions on a nationally norm-referenced test and pull up the school’s average score. Each of Kentucky’s 1,247 schools now has to demonstrate that it has helped all its students learn more.

Financial awards flow to schools that meet their goals. Earlier this year, the state distributed the first $26 million in cash bonuses to staffs at 479 schools. But the law also gives the state the power to fire staff at schools that don’t measure up.

Under the new system, students at Sandy Hook and all other elementary schools in Elliott County have improved at an astonishing rate, the majority of them moving out of the lowest of four categories in the state’s new academic rankings.

For example, in 1992, 38 percent of Sandy Hook’s students placed in the novice, or bottom, category in reading, while only 6 percent were in the proficient or distinguished categories. By 1994, however, those numbers had been reversed; only 5 percent were in the novice category and 34 percent in the proficient and distinguished categories. At nearby Lakeside Elementary School, 58 percent of the students have reached the proficient or distinguished levels in math, and 60 percent have reached those levels in social studies—up from 4 percent and 6 percent, respectively, two years before.

Spending gap narrows

With more money for everything from math manipulatives to teacher training, Elliott County’s students now outperform many of their peers at the most affluent and consistently successful schools in the state, demonstrating that low family income does not have to doom a child to failure. Over the past five years, the financial changes enacted with the Kentucky Education Reform Act caused Elliott County’s school revenues to grow by 76 percent, from $3.9 million to $6.8 million. Statewide, the per-pupil spending gap between the poorest and richest school districts has shrunk from $1,199 to $631. (In Illinois, the gap between the highest and lowest spending districts is $11,900, according to the most recent data available.)

“The biggest asset we got from KERA was the financial help,” says Green. “It just made things available to our children that they didn’t have before. Plus, we were very open to change. What did we have to lose? We were already at the bottom of the ladder.”

To Democratic State Sen. David Karem of Louisville, the Senate majority leader who was among the chief architects of Kentucky’s education plan, such progress in student achievement demonstrates the power of school reform. Karem said he recently distributed copies of “The State of the States” report in Financial World magazine to legislators because it indicated that Kentucky’s education reforms were starting to help the state’s financial climate, too. The magazine ranked Kentucky’s overall fiscal management 7th in the country, up from 26th place two years ago. (Illinois’ ranking was 43rd.)

“Results from Kentucky’s extensive public school reform are enviable,” Financial World notes in its Sept. 26 edition. “Fourth graders scoring at proficient and distinguished levels rose from 3 percent in 1991-92 to 13 percent in 1993-94. National performance for this criteria, as measured in the early 1990s, was 5 percent.”

Educational progress in Kentucky has not come easily or evenly, however. Opposition to the state’s education reform law has heated up in the past year. Much of the criticism has focused on the controversial state test that has eliminated multiple-choice questions in favor of short-essay questions, individual and group problem-solving events and student writing portfolios. In a report released this past summer, a team of outside evaluators concluded that the state’s testing methods were “seriously flawed.”

In addition, the Republican candidate for governor, who stands a fairly good chance of being elected in November, has called for a rollback of many of the reform law’s programs. In particular, he wants to eliminate the accountability system and the requirement that schools conduct an “ungraded” primary program, which mixes children of various ages and ability levels in the same classes from kindergarten through 3rd grade. (Some parents fear that older and brighter children will suffer in such mixed classes.)

Opposition groups, composed mostly of conservative Christian and affluent parents—some of whom don’t have their children in public schools—have criticized the reform law’s 75 learner outcomes for being too vague and value-laden; they also want schools to stress such “basics” as spelling, grammar and phonics. And the Kentucky General Assembly, which is gearing up for its next biennial session in January, includes fewer supporters of education reform than in years past.

Worst state in country

As Chicago begins examining the role of accountability in its education reform strategies, school leaders would do well to study some lessons from one of the nation’s pioneers. There is plenty of common ground. For if the Chicago Public Schools system was once called the worst in the nation, Kentucky’s public school system had earned that distinction on a state level.

Before the reform law was passed in 1990, Kentucky stood at the bottom of nearly every national measure of educational and economic success: 50th in the percentage of adults with high school degrees, 49th in the percentage of adults with college degrees, 39th in high school graduation rates, 50th in per-capita spending for public schools, and first in the percentage of adults who were functionally illiterate.

In response to a financial equity lawsuit brought by 66 property-poor school districts, the Kentucky Supreme Court in 1989 declared the entire school system unconstitutional and ordered the legislature to rebuild it within a year. The legislative contractors brought in some outside experts and remade the school system around three major areas—governance, finance and instruction/curriculum. On the governance side, the state turned most of the authority for local schools over to elected councils of parents, teachers and principals and reduced the role of local school boards. The legislature enacted anti-nepotism laws to prohibit patronage positions and cronyism.

On the financial side, the legislature earmarked about $1 billion for the reform package, paid for largely by a 1-cent increase in the state sales tax. Business support for the tax hike proved critically important; executives of many top corporations signed on and publicly endorsed the reforms.

The instructional changes included:

Free preschool for poor and handicapped children. About 75 percent of all eligible 3- and 4-year-olds were served during the 1994-95 school year. (In Chicago, less than half of “at-risk” 3- and 4-year-olds were served.)

Extended school services, such as after-hours tutoring, for students who need additional help. About 100,000 received such help during the 1993-94 school year, and 67 percent of them improved one or more letter grades.

Multiage primary classes, which were designed to let young elementary school students learn at their own pace and not be held back or pushed ahead before they were ready.

School-based social service centers that aim to reduce the outside pressures affecting student learning.

The state also set new expectations for instruction. Independent research and complex problem-solving were to be emphasized, and the use of textbooks and drills minimized. Previously, teachers in Kentucky had to devote a specified number of minutes to each subject each week and had to follow approved textbooks in lockstep. Their performance was measured by their adherence to rules, not by their success at raising student achievement.

The state’s new emphasis on group problem-solving and interdisciplinary lessons—a broader curriculum that business leaders say schools must have—has thrilled teachers who thrive on freedom and terrified teachers who treat instruction like a recipe. In the view of some parents, there are teachers who have taken the message about the process of learning to such an extreme that children are not learning enough content—grammar, spelling and computation.

Steve Edmondson, a father of four and a tire store manager from Henderson, Ky., who has served on school councils at the elementary and junior high level for the past five years, acknowledges that the reform law hasn’t produced perfect classrooms. But, in his view, it has improved instruction .

“Instead of saying, ‘Everyone turn to page 36 in the textbook today,’ the teacher says, ‘Okay, we’re studying Kentucky history now. We need to build a log cabin. Let’s figure out how to do it,'” Edmondson points out. “Kids are working together to accomplish a task. That’s so valuable for them later on. Industry is having to reteach everyone those same lessons now. Kentucky is leading the way.”

At Sandy Hook Elementary, the instructional changes prompted by the reform law mean that students who are learning how to estimate might cut apples into fractions or measure liquids in test tubes instead of circling an answer on a worksheet. Students who are learning to read and write are encouraged to practice like toddlers who are learning to walk and talk—by experimenting and growing, not by being penalized early and often for their mistakes.

“I learned to read by taking apart sentences,” recalls Green. “It took you forever to get the whole story finished. We’re just expecting more of the kids now. The 5-year-olds come in and we ask them to write in their journals, ‘What did you do on your summer vacation? You can draw or write.’ I would have never been comfortable doing that in school because I didn’t know that the first part of writing is drawing. The new teaching methods are wonderful.”

To measure student achievement, Kentucky devised a baseline score for each school that included test scores from grades 4, 8 and 12, and non-cognitive factors such as dropout rates, post-graduation success and family poverty. The state later moved the 12th-grade tests to grade 11 because of concerns that seniors had no motivation to do well.

Using a 100-point scale, the state gives each school a new threshold, or score, to meet over a two-year period.

Kentucky’s new assessment strategy has produced mixed results. Test scores show that most schools have a long way to go before they can expect to meet the higher academic standards. On the bright side, poor schools—in both urban and rural districts—have been just as likely as rich schools to earn rewards, suggesting that the educational equity gap is closing. Effort has begun to outpace wealth. Teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary, for example, earned about $2,000 apiece this year for exceeding the school’s two-year goal.

The new assessments also have revealed an achievement gap that some people had speculated about for years— average standardized test scores had enabled some schools to hide their lowest-performing students. In 1994, for example, when the Jefferson County (Louisville) Public Schools broke the test scores down by race and instructional program, officials discovered that students in advanced classes, which are predominantly white, scored three to five times higher than students in regular classes. That’s not entirely surprising because students in advanced classes are supposed to be ahead of their peers, but the extreme difference has raised questions about the academic rigor of other programs. Moreover, white students in the advanced program typically scored higher than black students in the same program—two and three times higher at some schools. Black students outscored white students in some regular and special-education programs, but their scores were still disproportionately low at many schools.

“This data would tend to support [the belief] that there are different opportunities to learn,” says Robert Rodosky, director of research for the Jefferson County Public Schools. “That’s troublesome.”

But the state’s new tests also have caused trouble. Indeed, the biggest problem with the state’s new accountability plan seems to be the lack of consistency in the test results. It’s still not clear which mix of instruction has produced higher test scores. For example, some schools that showed the most improvement in the latest round of assessments claim to have made few instructional changes. Meanwhile, some schools that were among the reform law’s earliest supporters fell short of their goals. Neither group knows why. The cash bonuses have added to the tension: There is the suspicion that some teachers and principals received rewards even as they thumbed their noses at the new instructional strategies suggested by the education reform.

In response to concerns that the reform law had asked teachers to do too much too soon, the state legislature postponed from 1995 to 1997 the most severe sanctions for poor-performing schools—assignment of a “distinguished educator” to take over the school and recommend whether to keep, fire or reassign staff members. The practical effect of the decision was nil because only one school in the state “qualified,” by posting a decline of at least 5 points over the two-year cycle. Schools that fall short of their achievement goals by a smaller margin receive help from a distinguished educator and must write improvement plans.

Another problem with the state’s accountability system is the uniqueness of the new student assessments—they don’t compare well to national norm-referenced tests. Consequently, it’s difficult to know how well the state’s students are performing relative to the rest of the country.

In 1994, at the request of the Kentucky Department of Education, the American College Testing (ACT) Research Division compared the scores of Kentucky’s high school seniors on the state’s assessment and the ACT’s college-entrance exams. Although ACT found a “substantial overlap” in the scores, they also noted some disturbing inconsistencies. A large percentage of students who scored in the bottom categories on Kentucky’s exam scored in the top quartiles on the ACT exam, while a much smaller number of students who scored in the top categories of Kentucky’s exam scored in the bottom quartiles on the ACT exam. The mismatch suggests that students who can choose the right answer from a list of answers, which is what the ACT seeks, often can’t explain their reasoning in writing, which is what the Kentucky assessment asks. An interesting note: Although girls typically score lower than boys on national standardized tests, they have posted higher average scores statewide on Kentucky’s tests.

Tests valid?

Other concerns about the validity of Kentucky’s assessments emerged earlier this year when districts that had supplemented the state’s new exams with the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills (CTBS), a nationally norm-referenced test previously given to students statewide, reported substantial declines in the CTBS scores. Schools responded that their students no longer understood the multiple-choice format of the CTBS, and that they had to take the test too early in the year to effectively measure achievement.

Valerie Forti, assistant director of the state’s independent Office of Educational Accountability, went a step further in trying to address concerns about the reliability of Kentucky’s exams. At the request of a legislative subcommittee, Forti surveyed the 35 Kentucky school districts that had administered the CTBS both before and after passage of the reform law. She said only eight districts acknowledged having tested every student in both cycles. Thus, comparing the scores was an apple-and-orange equation.

Before the reform law was passed, Forti noted, it was an acceptable practice for districts to “test who they wanted to. If all the special-education kids were on a field trip that day, nobody checked.” The education reform law changed that, matching every student with a test score. Students who don’t take the test for any reason show up as a zero on the school’s report, which is even lower than the one point given to schools whose students score in the “novice” or bottom category.

“The accountability is tremendously higher now,” Forti said. “Kids are not falling through the cracks anymore.”

Nevertheless, critics continue to sear the state’s test. On Oct. 3, responding to most of the recommendations in a report by a panel of five nationally recognized testing experts, the state school board voted to make major changes, effective in the 1996-97 school year. Among them: adding multiple-choice questions on future tests to improve their reliability; spreading the battery of tests among more grade levels to reduce the workload on students and teachers; and adding a nationally standardized test to help compare Kentucky students with their peers around the country. However, the norm-referenced test will not be used to identify schools for rewards or sanctions.

Fix it, don’t drop it

The independent auditors had recommended that Kentucky remove the student writing portfolios from the accountability index because of concerns that teachers’ grading was too subjective. But state school board members rejected that advice, citing evidence that the high-stakes portfolios have helped improve students’ writing and math.

Karem, the Senate majority leader, says individual components of the reform law will continue to need adjustments over the years. But that shouldn’t give opponents a license to throw the whole package out, he maintains.

“Does the accountability system need to be fixed?” Karem asks. “Of course it does. Geez, we’re the ones who hired the consultants to come in and find out what’s wrong. … The panel said it’s flawed, but if you fix it, it will work. Isn’t that what it’s about?”

Anything new takes time to refine, Karem insists. But people sometimes forget how bad Kentucky’s public school system used to be. If the old ways worked so well, he reasons, then “why were we the most illiterate work force in the nation?”

Holly Holland, a writer and editor based in Louisville, has covered the Kentucky Education Reform Act since its inception.

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