Education
9:56 am
Mon November 4, 2013

Kentucky Schools' Arts, Humanities Programs Get Mixed Reviews in State Testing

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The standing of Kentucky students in subjects such as math and reading has been a major topic of discussion.

Now it's time to consider writing and arts programs.

The Kentucky Department of Education has released new data on how well schools supported their writing and arts programs. These "program reviews" were conducted in arts and humanities, practical living and writing programs this year, and they'll assess the strength and support of instruction and will not consider test scores.

Most programs in those areas need improvement, the data shows. Still, some are arguing that the reviews aren't judged consistently.

In the future, the data on arts and humanities programs will account for 23 percent of a school's and a district's rating in Kentucky's Unbridled Learning accountability system.

In Unbridled Learning's first two years, the program reviews have not been factored into school and district ratings. When they are starting next year, schools' state ranking could improve or drop depending on the results.

“It provides a balanced system, not to look at just testing, but to look at all the other areas that are not tested,” says Education Commissioner Terry Holliday.

Public education’s emphasis on standardized testing has been criticized by many who say schools are too pressured to teach to the test instead on focusing on how students are learning.

The program reviews are conducted through self-assessment by school staff and a majority of Kentucky schools report as “needs improvement” (determined by a points system).

The data shows that some schools that have traditionally tested well—like Jefferson County’s duPont Manual and The Brown School—say their programs need improvement, too, and this has the Bluegrass Institutes’ education policy analyst Dick Innes questioning the consistency of the reviews.

“The staff members in these schools graded themselves very rigorously," he says. "They were hard of themselves and they’re willing to come up and say,  OK we need improvement. We’re not getting everything right."

When considering some of JCPS’ lower performing schools (as determined through writing tests), some—like The Academy at Shawnee—are deemed proficient in the writing program review. Western High School gave itself a perfect score on the writing program review, but fewer than a third of students scored proficient or above on the state’s writing test.

Innes suggests there needs to be a more impartial way to measure school programs, but Kentucky’s education department says the reviews aren’t meant to consider test scores. Instead, they’re meant to measure everything else that supports the programs.  

Program reviews do require schools to submit evidence of student work, including writing assignments. But education department officials say schools should be sending writing that’s been through the process of instruction and revision and not on-demand style writing tests.

Because of this, they say there is no true comparison.

Despite the wide range of scores, KDE officials also say schools and districts had training to help guide teachers and staff through the program review process. They add additional documents and resources are also made available.

As a final step, KDE says districts are responsible for reviewing individual school reviews before submitting them to the department. KDE will also conduct audits of certain programs as part of the accountability, officials say.

Across the state, programs in the three subject areas measured this year all, on average, need improvement. Holliday says this reflects budget cuts over the last several years that has led to less per-pupil funding.

“These program reviews just reflect the reality that we don’t have as many teachers, we don’t have as many classes and we don’t have as many resources in these very important areas,” he says.

(Image via Shutterstock)