A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Pruitt: With input from across the state, new education accountability system nearing completion

By Mike Marsee
Special to KyForward

Kentucky’s new accountability system has thousands of fingerprints on it as it nears the end of a year-long assembly line, but Stephen Pruitt couldn’t be more proud of it if he had built it entirely by himself.

The process of developing the new system has involved more than 3,500 shareholders, with the work taking place in meeting rooms and auditoriums from Frankfort to the far corners of the state.

Pruitt, Kentucky’s commissioner of education, said he is pleased that so many Kentuckians have been involved along every step of the way.

“It’s something I’m pretty proud of. And one of the reasons I’m proud of it is because I believe – and no one has corrected me when I’ve said this in public – that this is an accountability system that Kentuckians have built more so than any other system,” Pruitt said. “There’s not been a lot of top-down in this. This has involved a lot of feedback, a lot of discussion, and we’re still not quite there yet.”

Full implementation of the system is scheduled for the 2018-19 school year, and there is still much to be done.

In two weeks, the final proposal will come before the Kentucky Board of Education (KBE) for a first reading; a second reading and board action are expected in August.

Ryan New, a social studies teacher at Boyle County High School, makes a point during a town hall meeting at the Laurel County Center for Innovation in London. New said one thing he likes about Kentucky’s proposed accountability system is that it eliminates the inclination to compete against other schools. (Mike Marsee Photo)

In September, Kentucky’s plan will be submitted to the U.S. Department of Education (USED) to ensure that it meets the requirements of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the primary federal law governing P-12 education in the United States and the law under which states are being allowed to craft their own accountability systems.

At the same time, Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) staff members will be working on the regulatory process at the state level, which could take about six months to complete.

Pruitt and Associate Commissioner Rhonda Sims spent several weeks hearing what the public thinks of the draft proposal of the new accountability system at a series of 10 town hall meetings similar to those held in 2016 when they heard thoughts about what should be in the system.

“By and large, I think we’ve gotten really positive feedback on where we are,” Pruitt said. “It was our accountability to the people we met last year to say, ‘This is what we did.’ Last year people told us how they wanted us to build the system; this year the theme is, ‘Did we?’”

Ryan New, a social studies teacher at Boyle County High School who spoke on the need for civic indicators within the system at a town hall last month in London, said the meetings were a perfect illustration of what he advocates.

“This is what citizenship is, the ability to hear other people, to have their ideas articulated, to have them considered,” New said. “Certainly nobody expects to have all of their ideas put inside the system, but I love these town halls because they allow people to just have a conversation.”

Students have been at the center of the conversation about designing the new accountability system. Some highlights of the proposed system include:

— performance levels that will more easily identify how schools are doing in getting all students to higher levels of achievement;
— an emphasis on closing the achievement gap with special designations for schools that are doing it well and those that are struggling;
— and opportunity and access measures to help ensure that all students have access to high-quality programs and teachers.

A school’s overall rating will be based on five indicators:

— proficiency;
— growth (in elementary school and middle school only);
— achievement gap closure;
— students’ readiness to transition to college, a career or the military after high school; and
— opportunity and access, which takes into account factors that are important to students’ success – such arts, physical education and practical living classes – for which they are not tested.

“I think we’re definitely making progress in trying to get some different factors to where it gives a clearer snapshot,” Nate Bordeaux, the supervisor of instruction for the Mercer County school district, said after attending a town hall meeting in Lexington. “For so many years we’ve tried to quantify everything with one number, and we’ve got all of these different factors that work together to create that one number. This transition is very good.”

The overall rating will result in one of six labels for schools and districts, but not in a ranking for schools and districts.

“The No. 1 thing I really like about this is that it removes the competition with other schools,” New said. “It’s a faulty system when you’re always going to have somebody at the bottom.”

An interactive dashboard on the School Report Card website will display school, district and state performance in all components of the system.

“It’s been comforting how well it’s been received,” Pruitt said of the dashboard.

The dashboard has been on display during Pruitt and Sims’ presentation at the town hall meetings.

“It’s a good visual,” LaTonya Meekins, an associate principal at Leestown Middle School (Fayette County), said at the Lexington town hall.

Feedback has been critical to this process, but Pruitt said one of his chief concerns is the fact that many people still aren’t aware of the work that has been taking place.

“This has been probably the most open accountability development process ever, and the fact that we have had people who have either not known about their opportunities to be involved or not taken advantage of those is a little concerning. My hope is as we go forward into the regulatory process that people will engage,” he said.

Now that the town hall meetings have concluded and an online survey has ended, work on finalizing the proposal is continuing with the accountability steering committee and other developmental committees.

The proposal will be reconciled with Kentucky law, including Senate Bill 1 (2017), and ESSA guidelines, and that process will continue even after KBE gives final approval of the system, which is expected in August.

Once submitted to USED, the plan will undergo a peer review by officials from other state education agencies, who will submit feedback and could recommend revisions.

At the state level, current regulations on accountability and assessment will be repealed. New regulations will be written that define what is included in accountability, spell out how standards are set and give other details of the new system. Those regulations will ensure that the system is in compliance with Kentucky statutes and will be subject to legislative review and public comment

Any changes resulting from feedback from either the USED peer review or the Kentucky regulatory process will be included in a final submission of Kentucky’s plan to USED.

Pruitt said the 2017-18 school year will be “a transition year” that will be critical to helping schools and districts understand the new system.

“We’ll start doing training and communication to all of our districts and our shareholders about what this means and how it will be implemented. My hope is that people will embrace this as a new way of thinking,” he said.

Bordeaux said communication will be critical when it comes to explaining the dashboard.

“What concerns me going forward is we’ve got so many different pieces,” he said. “There are a lot of different gauges on that sample slide, and we need to have them, it’s just a matter of how we make that clear.”

One point that has been made clear throughout the process is the need to close Kentucky’s achievement gap. Schools that are making strong progress toward closing that gap will receive a gap closure designation, while schools with a large gap or a student group that is underperforming and not making progress will receive a gap issue designation and cannot earn the highest overall rating.

“I hope at the end of the day people will realize we can’t just sit around and say, ‘Oh, it’s too bad we have an achievement gap’ any more,” Pruitt said. “We all have to own it and figure out how to really go after the problem in earnest.”

Meekins said this accountability system should help in that effort.

“I think we’re going in the right direction,” she said.

Mike Marsee writes for Kentucky Teacher, a publication of the Kentucky Department of Education

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