Friday, February 24, 2012

Testing Accommodations: Changes to Benefit Students

The Kentucky Board of Education (KBE) recently approved changes in 703 KAR 5:070, the regulation related to testing accommodations for students with disabilities. Due to the legislative process, these changes will not take place until the 2012-13 state assessments. The most controversial change in accommodations was the elimination of adult or technology-based readers for the Kentucky reading tests. There were three major reasons for this decision.

1. Validity – Kentucky is changing its state assessments this year, and the reading test for 2012 and beyond will be a decoding and comprehension assessment. If we allow adult or technology-based readers on the reading test, then we are invalidating the construct of the test, and we would have to invalidate the assessment scores of any student provided with a reader. Allowing readers on a decoding and comprehension test turns the test into a listening comprehension test.

2. More than 42 percent of special education students in Kentucky were allowed readers on the reading test in 2011. This number has grown steadily since the enactment of the Kentucky Education Reform Act. Schools and teachers are under great pressure to produce proficient scores on state and federal assessments. By allowing the use of a reader, we have provided a negative incentive to help students with disabilities learn to read. It is the goal of special education to help students become independent readers so they can be successful in college, military and/or the workplace.

3. 2009’s Senate Bill 1 mandates national comparisons. Kentucky’s performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) could be questioned due to the large number of students who are provided readers. Students who are provided readers on state assessments are exempted from the NAEP assessments. NAEP allows a state to exempt up to 15 percent of its disabled students; however, in Kentucky 58.2 percent of the 8th-grade disabled students and 53.1 percent of the 4th-grade disabled students were excluded from 2011 NAEP reading tests. Therefore, the NAEP results could be questioned, and in the future, states that have large percentages of exempted students will come under increasing scrutiny.

Moving forward, it is essential to provide teachers and students with the levels of support needed to help more students become independent readers. While the KBE action does eliminate readers for state assessments on reading, readers will continue to be allowed for mathematics, social studies and science assessments, since those are tests of content and not reading. Also, daily instructional practice is not impacted by the change. Teachers certainly will continue to utilize readers with students during daily instruction as they move to transition students to independent reading.

Some national organizations have questioned Kentucky’s decision; however, once they realize that Kentucky changed the assessment to a reading assessment and Kentucky’s decision is in alignment with recommendations from the National Assessment Governing Board, then it is clear that the Kentucky decision was based on research and ensuring validity of assessments.

See information on the changes to state regulation 703 KAR 5:070 made by the KBE at its December 2011 meeting here.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Health Care Costs vs. Spending for Students

When I came to Kentucky in 2009, one of the first reports I read was the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce’s presentation on the state budget, The Leaky Bucket. In July 2011, the chamber updated the initial report with A Stronger Bucket.

The original and follow-up reports have lots of interesting statistics concerning the state budget and recommendations for improving the budget. In this blog, I want to discuss a key issue in the state education budget that was highlighted by the chamber reports – increasing health care costs.

The Kentucky Department of Education’s budget includes the annual appropriation for health care costs for school and district employees. In 2002, the appropriation was $286.7 million. Governor Steve Beshear’s budget proposal for FY13 shows health care costs projected to be $627 million and for FY14, $639.6 million. From 2002 to 2013, the increase in health care costs is $340.4 million, or 118 percent. From 2002 to projected FY14, the increase is $352.9 million, or 123 percent.

Another way to look at the challenge that health care costs present to state budget writers is to see the overall reductions proposed for education funding. In FY13, it’s $12.5 million. This reduction will impact Family Resource and Youth Services Centers, Extended School Services, textbooks, professional development, Read to Achieve, the Mathematics Achievement Fund, vocational schools and many other programs. The average reduction for each program will be 4.5 percent. The increase in health care costs from FY12 to FY13 is $12.5 million. Simple logic shows that if we were able to contain health care costs at FY12 levels, then we would be able to maintain many important education programs at FY12 levels.

Another issue that is directly impacting school districts is the 2010 agreement to provide additional dollars to support health care costs for retirees in the Kentucky Teachers’ Retirement System (KTRS). Beginning in 2010, all school districts were required to make a contribution on behalf of each active employee on payroll of 0.25 percent, increasing steadily to 2.25 percent in 2014. The estimated costs to school districts were $16 million in 2010-11 and $33 million in 2011-12. The costs will at least double for FY13 and FY14.

As an employee who benefits from the health insurance, I certainly am very interested in maintaining an excellent benefit for me and my family. I certainly understand that health care and pensions are important benefits to recruit quality teachers into education. However, the current path is not sustainable.

We are funding health care costs and other benefits at the expense of education resources that teachers and students need in order to reach college and career readiness for all students. We have asked teachers to implement more rigorous standards and reach a higher expectation – college and career readiness for all – and we have eliminated all dollars for instructional resources and greatly reduced the professional development and support for teachers.

The answer to this dilemma is well above my pay grade. I don’t envy the members of the General Assembly or the Governor as they struggle with increasing demands and scarce resources. The purpose of this blog was to create awareness and hopefully encourage some dialogue about the challenges we face in funding education in the Commonwealth.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Kentucky’s Work Banishes the Winter Doldrums

It was my honor this week to represent Kentucky at the White House press conference announcing the states who received the first-round waivers from No Child Left Behind (NCLB). From the announcement of the waiver process in September, the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) team and partners have worked many hours to prepare and negotiate the waiver and flexibility from the rigid requirements of NCLB. I especially want to thank Mary Ann Miller and staff in the Commissioner’s Office for pulling together all the components of the waiver and editing the entire application. Also, I want to thank Associate Commissioners Kevin Brown, David Couch, Ken Draut, Hiren Desai, Dewey Hensley, Felicia Smith and their staffs for the extra efforts in preparing the waiver application.

The waiver process actually began in April 2009 as KDE and partners began to plan for the implementation of 2009’s Senate Bill 1 (SB 1). The goal from the beginning has been to have one accountability system rather than two -- state and federal. Having two accountability systems was confusing to parents and schools. Also, the federal system began to lose credibility due to the details of NCLB.

Since April 2009, hundreds of meetings have been held with all stakeholders to gain feedback on the key components of SB 1 that also ended up being the key requirements of the NCLB waiver. These requirements are adopting new college/career readiness standards, implementing a more rigorous accountability model, implementing support for teachers and principals, and increasing flexibility with funding.

The NCLB waiver will have an immediate impact in Kentucky. This year, teachers and students are working with the new college/career-ready standards in mathematics and English/language arts. Schools and districts are planning for the accountability measures of college/career readiness, cohort graduation rates, student growth, closing achievement gaps and Program Reviews in arts and humanities, practical living/career studies and writing. Teachers and principals are working to develop new models for teacher/principal effectiveness. Educators are now supported by the Continuous Instructional Improvement Technology System (CIITS) that is the envy of many states. Our partners at the Prichard Committee and Kentucky Chamber of Commerce are helping spread the word about the new standards and accountability system.

Over the coming weeks, we will be working with schools and districts to implement the funding flexibility requirements. This flexibility comes at a very important time. State budgets for education have been reduced, and schools/districts will be looking at ways to redirect existing dollars to address the components of Senate Bill 1.

I am very proud to be education commissioner of a state that is leading the nation in education reform efforts. My thanks to Governor Steve Beshear and the General Assembly for setting the expectations in Senate Bill 1 that provided the path to the NCLB waiver and assured Kentucky’s position as a national leader in education.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Raising the Dropout Age

In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama called on every state to require students to stay in school until they graduate or turn 18. In Kentucky, this issue has been at the forefront of legislative sessions for at least three years.

This year, we have seen Rep. Jeff Greer and First Lady Jane Beshear support legislation (House Bill 216) to raise the dropout age to 18. Governor Steve Beshear has made raising the dropout age one of the key elements of his education agenda. In the Senate this week, Sen. Jack Westwood proposed and the Senate Education Committee passed Senate Bill 109, which would allow school districts the option to raise the compulsory attendance age to 18 if they have appropriate programs for dropout prevention in place. Sen. Westwood also gained support for Senate Bill 38, which promotes career pathways for students (which many believe is a key component to dropout prevention programs).

As commissioner of education, I want to make certain that, during the debate on which dropout bill will pass the House and Senate, we do not lose sight of the main issue. The main issue is that over 25 percent of entering high school freshmen will drop out of school before they reach 18. From an economic standpoint, that means 25 percent of the workforce will be competing for less than 8 percent of the jobs available. From many reports, we know that fewer than 8 percent of the jobs in 2018 and beyond will require less than a high school diploma. We also know that more than 60 percent of the jobs will require some training beyond high school.

Addressing the dropout issue is the major economic issue of our generation. If we do not address this issue, then we will continue to see escalating incarceration costs, health care costs and overall increases in social program costs. According to recent reports from the Alliance for Excellent Education:

What could happen to economy if we lower dropouts and increase college and career readiness?

  • If we decreased by half the dropouts -- $68 million in increased savings, $54 million in increased spending, $121 million in increased home sales, $7.1 million in increased auto sales, 450 new jobs, $80 million increase in gross state product, $5.9 million increase in state tax revenue.
  • If we increase the percentage of college- and career-ready to 60 percent, and they earned credentials or degrees -- $103 million in increased earnings, $77 million in increased spending, $211 million in increase home sales, 700 new jobs, $123 million in increased state product, $8.9 million in increased state revenue.

Raising the dropout age is a first step in impacting the economy of Kentucky and the future of individual students. Raising the dropout age then must be accompanied with programs and support for teachers and students.

My hope is that we not get bogged down over a debate of “requiring” versus “optional” raising of the dropout age. And, we have many things that we can do right now to lower high school dropout rates. I hope readers will volunteer for Operation Preparation during the week of March 12-16 and help our students chart their path toward and after graduation.

The Kentucky Department of Education’s (KDE) Unbridled Learning: College/Career Readiness for All initiative is designed to ensure that all students are prepared for college and/or career by the time they graduate from high school.

Advising is a key strategy for reaching this goal, and as part of Operation Preparation, trained volunteer community advisors will meet with every 8th- and 10th-grade student.

Log into KET Teachers’ Domain to explore Kentucky’s Unbridled Learning: Operation Preparation, two modules that prepare community volunteers for their individual advising sessions. Module 1 provides an overview of the role of community volunteer advisors. Module 2 details the components of an advisory session.

Operation Preparation is a joint effort of KDE and the Department of Workforce Development and provides an opportunity for schools, students, parents and communities to collaborate on effective advising and focus attention on the importance of planning for college/career.