Topeka State education officials are recommending that Kansas schools shift to a "hybrid" form of testing starting in 2015, requiring elementary and middle school students to take new tests being developed by a multistate consortium, while giving high schools and their students the ability to decide which tests are most appropriate for them.
But Kansas State Board of Education members said Wednesday that they want more information before they are asked to vote on the plan next month, including the possibility of continuing to pay Kansas University's Center for Educational Testing and Evaluation to develop and administer state assessments.
The discussion came one day after the state board received a dismal report card showing student test scores declining in 2013. But officials said that was likely the result of using old tests that will not be used again because they are no longer aligned with the way schools are teaching reading and math.
The hybrid plan would give high schools the option of giving their students a standard exam, or letting college-bound students use the ACT or SAT tests, while students preparing to go into technical training or straight into the workforce could take exams geared more to their own vocational interests.
It would complicate the task of comparing schools to one another and holding them accountable for improvement, which has been the traditional purpose behind the national testing program. But state officials say it would make the tests more meaningful to students.
Deputy Education Commissioner Brad Neuenswander said the hybrid approach was preferred by an overwhelming majority of superintendents, principals, curriculum directors and teachers throughout the state.
"If the priority is to compare one building to the next, everyone would have to take same test," Neuenswander told the board. "But does that trump the meaningfulness and value to individual?"
The state board is expected to vote next month on what kind of testing scheme to adopt. And it's expected that state legislators will weigh in as well once they see the price tag of various options, which could range from $1.8 million to $3.3 million in additional costs each year.
That would be on top of the $4.6 million per year the state would still pay KU to administer and grade the tests.
Under federal law, states are required to test students in reading and math each year in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school to qualify for federal funds. The state also uses those tests, plus additional tests in science and social studies, as a basis for school accreditation.
For elementary and middle school students, the department is recommending the state use a new test being developed by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, a group of 23 states, including Kansas.
That's one of two multistate groups that received federal grants to develop new tests aligned to the Common Core standards in reading and math.
Those groups have also come under heavy criticism from conservatives who are opposed to the entire Common Core initiative, arguing that it amounts to a federal takeover of state education policy, even though Common Core was a state-driven initiative from the beginning.
"I can see advantages politically in having CETE develop one for us," said board member Ken Willard, a Hutchinson Republican.
Deena Horst, a Salina Republican, agreed. "I've heard the same questions from legislators that I've been in contact with," she said.
The role of KU
Marianne Perie, a co-director at CETE, said the center would continue to be involved in the testing no matter which option the state board uses. That's because the center operates the computer network and platform known as KITE that students log into to take the tests.
Currently, she said, CETE develops test questions, loads them into the KITE system and scores the tests when they're completed. Until now, scoring has been a simple process because the state uses only multiple-choice tests.
But the Common Core standards call on students to perform more complicated tasks, using higher-order thinking skills. That requires more complex, technology-enhanced items on the tests, many of which will have to be graded by hand, which would involve more cost.
Either way, Perie said, CETE is prepared to continue working with the state assessment program.
Board chairwoman Jana Shaver, an Independence Republican, said she wants to see more specific information from KU before making a decision.
"As a board, this is one of the most important decisions we have to make," Shaver said. "We need every piece of relevant information when we vote next month."