Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Kentucky's new Unbridled Learning off to mixed reviews

School districts size-up rankings

This from
When the first data from Kentucky’s new public education accountability system were released last week, one of the most recognizable differences was that schools and districts statewide were ranked against one another for the first time based on their overall scores.
The reactions to that have been mixed.

“We need to know what we need to do to compete globally,” said Anthony Strong, superintendent of Pendleton County Schools. “I don’t mind being compared, as long as we’re using the same measuring stick.”

Not all educators feel the measuring sticks in the new Unbridled Learning model can be the same, though.

“Every school has different demographics and different barriers – we have that within our own district,” said Randy Poe, superintendent of Boone County Schools. “I think news agencies will focus on rankings, but I hope as educators we’re focused on mastery and the education of the children.”

The old Commonwealth Accountability Testing System (CATS) was replaced by Un­brid­led Learning after the General Assembly in 2009 ordered an education overhaul.

In February 2010, Kentucky was the first of 45 states to adopt the reading and math Common Core Standards, which provide consistent national benchmarks. Though social studies, science and on-demand writing are also tested under the new system, the standards aren’t as rigorous as they are for reading and math. More stringent social studies and science standards are being developed.

Under Unbridled Learning, each district and school is given an overall score on a scale of 0 to 100 derived from five components: achievement, gap, college and career readiness, growth and graduation rate.

Overall scores are then ranked by school level (elementary, middle and high) from best to worst and placed into percentiles. Each is then classified as Distinguished (top 10 percent, or 90th percentile), Proficient (top 30 percent, or 70th percentile) or Needs Improvement (69th percentile or below).

Under CATS, data were never released with such rankings.

“The point of CATS was to compare a district against itself. Rankings weren’t very reliable,” said Lisa Gross, spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Education.

Yet when press releases were sent out by districts about their CATS scores, some districts would include where they ranked – a number they calculated on their own.

“We figured why not go ahead and give them what they want in a way that is reliable and valid,” Gross said of Unbridled Learning.

The results last week weren’t surprising. Beechwood and Fort Thomas schools were at or near the top, as they have been for years. Urban districts such as Covington and Newport were at or near the bottom, where they have regularly placed.

“The new system hasn’t changed who ranks at the top or at the bottom – the reality is the reality,” said Rick Ross, executive director of learning support for Covington Independent Public Schools.

Ross said the rankings can be frustrating. For example, he said Glenn O. Swing Elementary School in his district, which has made progress in recent years, was in the 78th percentile under CATS last year (based on district calculations), but is in the 19th percentile under the new system.

While that may appear dismal, Glenn O. Swing is just 14 points away from proficiency (at the 70th percentile). Ross said 377 schools are within that 14-point range.

“So every one-tenth of a point can really drop you in the rankings,” he said.

Kathy Burkhardt, superintendent of Erlanger-Elsmere Independent Schools, also has issues with the rankings. Each school and district is given a target improvement number to strive toward each year. So a school could meet or exceed its target number but still drop in the rankings.

“You won’t know if you reached high enough because you don’t know what everybody else did,” Burkhardt said. “But we just have to focus on what we can control.”

There is also some concern about districts not continuing to work together.

Many superintendents statewide share ideas that work, but why would a district share a good idea with another district that is in the same percentile range?

“I think this could set districts up to collaborate less with each other,” said Terri Cox-Cruey, superintendent of the Kenton County School District.

Gross hopes that is not the case. “We are in this for one purpose: To get all students college and career ready. It’s an ultimate goal everybody shares.

“Every child in every public school in this state is everybody’s responsibility,” she said.

Cox-Cruey said that, on the positive side, the rankings have shown that a school such as River Ridge Elementary in her district can succeed at high levels.

River Ridge is the district’s largest school with more than 950 students. It’s also a very diverse population with about 21 percent minorities, and almost half of the students qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch.

The school finished in the 98th percentile under Unbridled Learning.

“It shows you can do it,” she said. “You can have high achievement and close the gap.”

Meghan Glynn, a mother of four in Kenton County, said the new system is much improved over the old one. “A lot of expertise went into it, and we’re on the right track,” she said.

As for the rankings, which placed all three of her children’s schools in the “Needs Improvement” category?

Glynn likes them.

“It’s just like business – competition keeps you sharp,” she said.

Poe said that, no matter where a district or school ranks, it’s going to come down to hard work and constant monitoring of students throughout the year for each child to improve.

Strong, the Pendleton County Schools superintendent, agreed.

“Now we know where we were, where we are and where we have to go,” he said. “It is what it is, and we know what we have to do.”


Anonymous said...

I thought that was one of the flaws attributed to previous assessment instruments - the data was only useable within the state and had no national relevance or basis of comparison.

If you follow that logic, we should not just be comparing ourselves to county next door but to the schools in states across the nation and not just a comparison of to some homogonized national average on an assessment instrument used by some schools in varying levels.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand how we can expect to compare growth from this year to next year when the state is dumping in program reviews which are a part of the school score.

Self reporting and evaluation should never be a part of this sort of scoring system, especially when the state does not have a viable system of reviewing these scores much less determing their accuracy.

Anonymous said...

Lumping Gap populations into one score homogonizes or even hides problems you might have with a smaller sub group. Take a typical small rural system where you might have 60% free and reduced lunch, 3% minority, 12% special education and > 1% LEP. You could score high on GAP but have minority and LEP kids doing poorly. Similarly, if you score low, where are you going to invest your time and resources to get the biggest advances if low performance is equaly bad in all sub groups.

I remember with KIRIS and CATS when we use to spend a lot of time with gender gaps. Whatever happend to that?

Anonymous said...

So how does my effort in my classroom with my students really impact one tenth of a point for my entire school's score much less how that compares to other schools?

These attempts at appearing to quantitatively measure instruction and learning get crazier and more convaluted with each new leader and system. Unbridled Learning's KPREP is more akin to what is in the bottom of the stall than what what is in the feed box.

Why aren't we working on soft skills like adaptability, social communication, service orientation, relationship development etc. You could have some of the highest scoring kids in the world academically but if they can't function outside the limited contexts of traditional scholastic activities what good is all those scores.

When I interview teachers, the person who gets the job is not the one with the highest GPA or teacher candidate exam scores. It is the person who can communicate in an effective and socially capable fashion. Someone who can explain abstract views and who has references who can substantiate not just their intelect but also their ability to understand, adapt and create as a flexible team player. With the exception of the first year of KIRIS testing, we don't do anything to measure (ie value) those important skills.