Kentucky’s Changing How Schools Are Judged and Here’s Why You Should Care

With the adoption of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the marquee educational law that Congress passed in 2015, Kentucky stands ready to dramatically shift its approach to accountability. Designed to replace the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, ESSA gives states more freedom to set goals for their students’ achievement. Kentucky opened the floodgates for that earlier this year by passing Senate Bill 1, which has started discussion among policymakers about how Kentucky can change its education plan to meet ESSA requirements.

Now, getting past all that policy jargon, this is great news for Kentucky. This means that Kentucky is now getting an opportunity to revise and revamp its accountability system to better promote quality education for all students of the Commonwealth. Here’s why the newly proposed system is a good thing.

This Is Only a Test

Part of the newfound “freedom” that states have gained from ESSA includes the freedom to eliminate unnecessary or redundant tests and instead let teachers focus more on getting their students to reach personalized achievement goals. Now, state testing will only be one part of the big picture of accountability, and other factors (like closing achievement gaps and promoting students’ college readiness) will be considered more important in that picture.

According to Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers Union, ESSA could mean that “high-stakes testing and sanctions are no longer the be-all and end-all in education.” As Kentucky looks to move beyond state testing as the sole means of accountability, teachers can now begin to look more seriously at teaching to the whole child instead of teaching to the test—and that’s better for everyone involved.

Reach for the Stars

Kentucky’s Accountability Steering Committee, named by Commissioner Stephen Pruitt, argued that any proposed accountability system must meet a few guiding principles: the system should be focused on quality education for every student, emphasize student wellbeing, and be easy to understand.

Kentucky’s proposed accountability system features a new school rating system to achieve these goals, in which public schools are rated on a scale of five stars. Just like with movies, restaurants or hotels, a one-star school rating suggests that parents should be leery of a particular school, while a five-star school is exemplary.

For parents and stakeholders, this rating method is definitely more simplistic than the previous system, which rated schools with labels such as “needs improvement,” “proficient” and “distinguished.” While it’s not exactly clear how Kentucky will break down the criteria for earning stars, the proposed system definitely provides clarity and simplicity in a way that the previous system didn’t.

Spread the Wealth

Under the proposed accountability system, Kentucky schools would be rated based on performance on five key criteria: proficiency, growth (elementary and middle schools only), transition readiness, achievement gap closure and opportunity and access. One of the most fascinating points of the new system is its renewed focus on closing the gap.

Under the proposed new system, school districts and states have more autonomy in creating individualized achievement targets for students, including groups of students. Loftier targets are set for student groups who are further behind, with the ultimate goal being to close the gap between low-performing groups and their peers.

This is a huge change from the Unbridled Learning model, which focused more intensely on pushing all students to proficiency, regardless of their individual demographics. The new plan would also allow school districts to have a larger role in making decisions for struggling students, which could result in more personalized and student-centered solutions for gap students. That’s a big plus, and it’s great to know that Kentucky’s policymakers are serious about closing the gap.

Are there potential drawbacks to the new accountability system? Sure. Education can be messy at times, and no accountability system would be perfect.

However, the proposed system is a great foundation moving forward, and actually has a lot to offer Kentucky already. Only time will tell, but who knows—maybe our new accountability system will deserve a five-star rating itself.

What do you think?

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