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Ky. Bill To End Multi-Age Grouping in Grades 1-3 Advances

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Kentucky lawmakers forwarded a bill last week that would gut the most prominent part of the state's ungraded-primary program.

The bill, which passed the House on a 89-5 vote late last week, would eliminate a requirement that children be grouped by ability rather than age in the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grades.

The bill's sponsor argued that the provision has caused unnecessary problems for teachers and detracts from other aspects of elementary school reform.

Proponents of the bill, including the Kentucky Education Association, have argued that teachers are hard pressed to find ways to appropriately group children other than by age.

Wilmer S. Cody, the state education commissioner, has opposed the bill, saying that some teachers have misunderstood the scope of multi-age grouping.

"There is sufficient flexibility in the current language," said Jim Parks, a spokesman for the education department.

"The whole idea is that kids ought to be placed according to their needs. If teachers end up with a group working together that's all 8-year-olds, they shouldn't worry about it," he said. "But they shouldn't arbitrarily group children by their age either."

The bill marks the only serious legislative effort to modify the 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act, a landmark school-reform law that has been under growing scrutiny across the state. Observers said that last November's defeat of a Republican gubernatorial candidate who had staunchly opposed the reform law has quieted much of the dissent.

In fact, education matters have been so calm that legislative leaders scrapped a scheduled committee appearance last week by Mr. Cody, reasoning that they had nothing to gain from his visit.

Still, questions remain over the state's testing program and the ungraded-primary requirement. Analysts expect bills proposing changes in the testing program to be filed in the next few weeks. They expected the ungraded-primary bill, sponsored by Rep. Harry Moberly, to pass the House. It will face a tougher audience in the Senate, however.

'Continuous Progress'

Mr. Moberly has explained that his bill is an effort to move the chief goal of the ungraded-primary program--continuous student progress--into the spotlight. So far, he said, grappling with the multi-age-grouping requirement has stolen the program's thunder. A focus on continuous progress might bring about a more natural version of multi-age grouping.

But opponents are making the opposite argument.

"The teachers and researchers we've talked to say that multi-age grouping is the essential lever to getting primary school teachers to think about continuous progress," said Robert F. Sexton, the executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a statewide citizens' group. "The bill heads in the wrong direction--a return to the status quo."

In the meantime, state officials have released the most recent batch of student test results. The scores on the statewide test, which combines students' class work and open-ended questions, showed dramatic gains in 4th-grade reading abilities. Reading scores for 8th graders showed a slight slip, while 11th-grade reading scores increased slightly.

Mr. Cody zeroed in on the 4th-grade gains to make his point on the age-grouping question.

"It indicates the powerful effect of primary school," Mr. Cody said of the scores. "When you expect more, you get more."

On the state writing test, both 4th and 8th graders showed some improvement. Scores for 11th graders declined slightly. Mathematics results showed marked improvement in all three grade levels.

"I attribute the 4th-grade reading gains to the changes in reading challenges and opportunities that are a direct result of primary school," Mr. Cody said.

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