Friday, August 8, 2003

Ky. opts for dual tests for schools

Some could pass state criteria, fail federal

By Karen Gutierrez
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The state says your child's school is succeeding. The federal government say it's failing. What's a parent to believe?

That's one of the questions that may result from a decision made Thursday by the Kentucky State Board of Education.

In response to a federal law known as No Child Left Behind, the Kentucky board voted to adopt parallel testing systems, each with different standards for measuring school performance.

Within two years, all students in Grades 3 through 8 will take the tests each spring. Some years they will be tested only in reading and math. Other years will include additional subjects, such as science and social studies.

Each school will report two sets of results.

One will be for the new testing required by No Child Left Behind. Kentucky officials are still working out the details, but under this system, schools will be labeled as "needing improvement" if their scores don't meet a certain standard. Parents at those schools will have the option of transferring their children elsewhere.

The other set of results will be for the Commonwealth Accountability Testing System, which has been in place for several years. CATS measures schools on their progress toward individual school goals. If they improve each year, they are eligible for monetary rewards from the state.

Here's where the confusion comes in:

The two testing systems have different standards for determining how schools are doing.

So a school could be deemed unsatisfactory by the federal standard but "in rewards" under the state one.

Parents could be offered the option of leaving a school the state says is doing well.

"It has the potential for multiple levels of confusion," said Helen Mountjoy, chairwoman of the state board.

The board could have simplified matters by eliminating CATS. But the test has been a cornerstone of Kentucky education reform.

Its requirements, such as writing portfolios from students at certain grade levels, go well beyond those of the federal test. Eliminating CATS would mean lowering Kentucky's expectations for schools, state officials said. Hence the parallel systems - a situation not limited to Kentucky.

The mechanics and rationale of each system will have to be carefully spelled out for the public, Education Commissioner Gene Wilhoit said.

"It's not enough just to say we're going to have a two-tier system," he said.

All 50 states are struggling to comply with No Child Left Behind,and some are intent on doing so while maintaining their existing accountability systems.

In North Carolina, for example, schools can be designated "Schools of Excellence" - the state's highest category under its ABCs plan - even if they don't make "adequate yearly progress" under No Child Left Behind.

Similarly, Florida schools can receive state bonus checks for their students' progress yet also be labeled as underperforming based on federal standings.

In Northern Kentucky, some parents expressed confusion over the competing measures.

They know the various tests are meant to hold schools accountable, and under CATS, they tried to at least make sense of their children's scores.

But overall school tallies have always been confusing, and now even more so.

"If you're an ordinary person and don't know these acronyms and stuff that they use, it is a little difficult," said Beverly Brookbank, whose daughters will be in third grade at Thomas Edison Elementary School in Covington. "If I could understand it, I might care a little more."

She would not be inclined to move her children if their school were deemed unsatisfactory, she said, but she thinks it's nice to have the option.

No Child Left Behind, signed by President Bush in 2001, is considered to be the most sweeping reform of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act since the education bill was enacted in 1965.

The bill requires districts to work toward closing the achievement gap between poor and minority students and their peers or face sanctions.

The legislation also mandated new testing requirements and issued stricter guidelines on teacher quality and school improvement.

The Associated Press and the Louisville Courier-Journal contributed. E-mail

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