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Feedback sought on Kentucky's proposed education accountability system

Following the passage of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in 2015, states have been busy re-imagining what education accountability might look like under the new law. ESSA devolves a lot of decision-making authority back the states, providing new opportunities to define what an effective education system really means and how we would know if we have one, or are at least making good progress in that direction.

Kentucky Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt and his staff have organized numerous working groups to draft various components of the state's new plan. Using feedback gathered from a statewide series of listening sessions, these groups presented a rough draft of the plan at the February meeting of the Kentucky Board of Education (where I serve as a member). The Commissioner is planning a new series of town hall meetings around the state to gather stakeholder feedback. Right now Congress is moving to repeal all of the ESSA implementation regulations adopted under the Obama administration, which may put the entire process in limbo, but at least for now we expect that the state board will adopt a final version of the accountability model later this year and submit to the U.S. Department of Education for approval by September.

Below I'll post some documents on the proposal, and I welcome feedback from educators, parents, students, and any interested citizen. Here I want to discuss some of the major changes under this plan, and share some of my own concerns, which may well be resolved in time as the working groups continue to hone the proposal and identify more specific mechanisms for measuring certain outcomes. 

Perhaps one of the biggest changes under the proposed system is that schools will no longer receive a single, summative score, which inevitably allows schools to be rank ordered for comparison. As I've argued before, ranking reveals very little about where a school is actually succeeding and where it is struggling to improve. Schools will, though, receive a summative rating in one of six performance levels. This performance level will be determined by a matrix showing how the school is doing in four categories: 1) a combination of students achieving proficiency and students demonstrating academic growth, 2) students' readiness for their next academic or life transition, 3) the extent to which the school is providing equitable learning opportunities and access for all students, and 4) the school's progress toward closing achievement gaps between historically-low achieving groups of students and overall student performance.

  Proposed School Performance Matrix

The strength of this matrix is that a school cannot achieve the highest overall performance levels if it has serious problems in any one of these four categories (unlike the current system, wherein a school can be rated "distinguished" even though it has serious achievement gaps or other problems). Schools will still be identified for intervention and support from the state based on chronically low graduation rates or being rated in the bottom 5 percent of all schools (a requirement under federal law).

I had urged a greater emphasis on student growth in the new system, and growth in reading and math does figure in to this proposal, but only at the elementary and middle school levels. This is disappointing, but the challenge is coming up with meaningful ways to measure growth. Given the complexities involved, and the desire to include multiple other measures of school performance, I may have to live with this limited emphasis on improving student performance over time. I hope the working groups can further develop this component, because it is the only mechanism for incentivizing schools to work for continuous learning improvement among all students, regardless of their starting point in the learning process.

I'm also pleased to see the invalid and problematic program review process for non-tested areas go away, but many questions remain about the Opportunity and Access category that replaces it. Working groups are still trying to determine how the ratings and self-report elements will work. The validity of such measures will be crucial to the credibility of the new system.

Finally, the current college and career readiness component, which has unintentionally incentivized schools to push students away from arts and other courses in favor of career tracks, has been replaced with a multitude of "transitions" measures, most of which look strong and are not pitted against each other. This seems to be an improvement.

There are a multitude of other questions about this system, and my support for it will depend on many details still be determined. Overall, though, this proposal appears to be a marked improvement over our existing school accountability system. I encourage readers to attend one of the Commissioner's town halls to offer feedback, or contact me directly with your thoughts and concerns.

A narrative and visual summary of the proposed school accountability model:  Download III_AccountabilitySummaryDRAFT013117FINAL_0

PowerPoint of Kentucky Board of Education February 2017 work session:  Download III_KBEWorkSessionAcct20170207_0

Usual disclaimer: All views expressed here are mine alone and do not reflect the opinions of Western Kentucky University or the Kentucky Board of Education.

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