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Kentucky 'Districts of Innovation' Could Challenge Standardized Testing

Some Kentucky school districts may soon test how much wiggle room there is in the federal law that has forced them to measure student progress through standardized tests, which have been a major criticism of the nation's public education system.

Education Commissioner Terry Holliday says local school districts are helping drive a larger national conversation that’s been questioning the need for standardized tests. “Nationally you’re seeing a lot of push back on standardized testing. I think policy makers are much more open to innovation from school districts than we have been in any time in the last 13 years," Holliday tells WFPL. Kentucky and other states use tests to show the U.S Department of Education how students are doing. It's part of the No Child Left Behind law (also known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act), which hasn't been reauthorized in a number of years. But standardized testing, a key component of that law, has been criticized for things like the cost, and for what the results of the tests actually tell us about how students are learning. Education historian and New York University research professor Diane Ravitch was recently recognized by the University of Louisville for her book, "The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education."  Now, through a new Kentucky Districts of Innovation law, some school districts—including Jefferson County—could soon try to move away from testing as the main component of measuring whether students are graduating ready for life after high school. Holliday says he supports the ideas that local districts are inventing, like Danville Independent Schools, which was featured on PBS earlier this year for its work on project-based learning. Holliday says it may be possible for districts that can prove they're preparing students for college and careers to taper off testing. “I believe both the state and the feds are open to different ways as long as we meet the requirements of showing where students are each year in their progress towards college and career readiness,” Holliday says. The USDE has shown signs of willingness to compromise on parts of NCLB this year when it allowed eight California school districts a waiver in order to create their own accountability system. But that included using tests. Holliday says its likely some testing would need to stick around in Kentucky, like the ACT college readiness exam. Part of the reason, he says, is because many colleges and universities require the ACT to apply. But Holliday says even higher education institutions are finding ways—like portfolios—to measure whether a student is ready for the next level. If Kentucky’s innovation districts decide to request waivers from state tests, the education department may need to first get approval from the state's General Assembly and the federal government. How difficult that may be, Holliday couldn't say. (Image via Shutterstock)