It was big news in November when Kentucky released test scores based on what were generally acknowledged as the first common-core-based assessments in the nation. The state said it was pleased with the scores despite drops in student proficiency. But now there's testing news in Kentucky that's much more difficult, if not impossible, to view as positive.
The problem is with the Bluegrass State's end-of-course exams for high school students that are provided by the test vendor ACT and based on the common core. The Bluegrass Institute, a conservative think tank that opposes the common core, reported that in January the Kentucky education department discontinued the scoring of constructed-response answers on all four of these tests, and would only oversee scoring of the multiple-choice items on the exams. This was due to problems scoring the previous end-of-course exams that led to the tests failing to add "instructional value" for schools and students.
The responsibility for scoring subsequent end-of-course constructed-response items has been shifted from the state education department to local districts.
This isn't the only major testing problem in Kentucky, by the way. The education department announced that there had been a separate "technical glitch" that led to slow or dropped connections with ACT's online testing platform. Sometimes only individual students were affected, but sometimes entirely classes were. The problems began on April 30 and continued through the week, the department said. Remember that Indiana and Oklahoma have experienced online testing problems last week, and Minnesota did before that. And on May 5, Kentucky announced it was pulling the plug on the problem-plagued online testing platforms and will now finish off the testing period only with pencil-and-paper exams.
Back to the constructed-response scoring issue. When I called up the Kentucky department about this issue, it passed along a statement explaining that because of the inability of the ACT to score these written-response items in a timely fashion that was helpful to teachers and students, such items would become a local responsibility.
"Moving forward, KDE [the Kentucky department] will be monitoring and surveying all high schools to see how they build constructed response into their final grades. KDE will review the information and determine if additional changes are necessary to ensure constructed response items are part of local assessments," the statement read.
However, it appears from the statement that these items in end-of-course tests will no longer factor into the state accountability model (there is also a local accountability model referred to in the statement as the "final grades" for high schools).
The Bluegrass Institute's Richard Innes said that this problem with testing contracts would become a national problem as such tests put more of a strain on testing companies' resources.
"I just don't think the resources are available to allow testing companies to do quality scoring in the time-frame allowed at a cost the states can bear," he said, noting that Kentucky has had problems with scoring written responses on tests for years. He later added of this fundamental problem, "It's not going to go away."
He said that despite the department's statement, one district he talked to had decided simply not to give constructed-response items to students as a result of the end-of-course testing change. Another had decided to give these items to students before the rest of the end-of-course tests, in order to have more time to graduate. (Innes declined to identify which districts he was referring to.)
The Bluegrass Institute's news alert quoted Kentucky lawmakers who (apparently) are just learning of the news, and they aren't happy. State Senate Pro Tem President Katie Stine, a Republican and member of the Senate Education Committee, said the news made her question whether the testing program still complied with the 2009 law that brought it into existence (and which she co-sponsored): "Because the Kentucky Legislature is ultimately responsible for education in the state, legislators need to hear from the KDE and others regarding this very disturbing development."
In a message from Kentucky Commissioner of Education Terry Holliday (that has a date of Feb. 1 attached but appears to have been published March 8), officials emphasized what they deemed were positive aspects of the scoring change, saying that the assessments would now be 100 percent computer-scored, and would allow the tests to be administered on the last day of classes because they could be scored quickly.
"So, in summary, we believe it is a win-win for teachers and the state. High school teachers get a more useful final exam with instant results. The state gets accountability information and CR [constructed-response] questions are still an important part of the model," the state department said.
You can read more about technology problems with testing in-depth in an article on technology problems in state testing regimens by my colleague Michelle Davis.