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Ky. Bids KIRIS Farewell, Ushers In New Test

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Frankfort, Ky.

Amid the polished marble and imposing sculptures of the state Capitol Rotunda here last week, Kentucky lawmakers marked the dawn of a new day for the state's beleaguered assessment program.

When a beaming Gov. Paul E. Patton finally put pen to paper and signed a new testing bill April 15, he bid an official adieu to KIRIS, the state's 6-year-old assessment system, while ushering in the new Commonwealth Accountability Testing System, or CATS.

"This [law] is the culmination of two years of work," the Democratic governor said against a backdrop of applauding state lawmakers. "Some of us questioned if we could get an effective law passed at all. And certainly few would have expected this good a law to have been passed with such a broad bipartisan support."

The new law, which halts KIRIS, the Kentucky Instructional Results Information System, after this month's round of testing and launches CATS next spring, leaves most details of the new test for the state education department to work out over the next year.

The measure--really a framework for a new testing system--does, however, require CATS to include a national, norm-referenced portion that matches the state's core curriculum and provides national comparisons for state students. It also calls for a pared-down written portion of the test, which, under KIRIS, students completed during regular class time during the school year. The law also mandates that the test results provide individual scoring on student transcripts and allow for longitudinal comparisons for the same students.

Referendum on Reform

For the governor and key legislators, getting to last week's ceremony was a daunting task.

Although lawmakers of every political stripe had acknowledged that KIRIS was flawed and that changing the test was essential, test reformers divided into two distinct camps during the legislative session: those who wanted a new, improved version of the test, and a small but vocal contingent that sought to replace the entire system with a national standardized test.

Leaders and education groups who backed the bill say they saw the testing debate as a referendum on the Kentucky Education Reform Act, or KERA. The state's nationally watched law sought to transform Kentucky schools from top to bottom after the state supreme court declared the system a failure.

"Without question, [passing this law] was the greatest challenge that the General Assembly faced in this session," Sen. Tim Shaughnessy, the Democratic co-chairman of the Senate education committee, said last week. "This bill assures that the state's not going to back off from the commitment it made in 1990"--when the legislature passed KERA--"that every child deserves access to a quality school system."

"When we came in this session, we had a challenge because the KIRIS test was obviously a real sore point in our education system," said House Speaker Jody Richards, a Democrat. "This [bill] addresses the [test's] problems and moves education reform in the right direction, which is so important for the well-being of young people and the economic well-being of the state."

But not everyone in Frankfort on a glorious spring morning last week was celebrating. Several lawmakers, concerned that the new plan sets up a huge, costly, and possibly futile task for the state, left the Capitol wringing their hands.

"This new law doesn't give us a clean break. When all is said and done, we could have something that's pretty close to KIRIS, but with a different name," said Sen. Gex Williams III, a Republican and a longtime critic of the state tests who spearheaded an effort to replace the system with a commercially available achievement test. "Kentucky shouldn't be in the business of designing tests. As long as [this test] stays Kentucky-only, you've got a problem. It's a recipe for failure."

Republican Rep. Charles Walton, a middle school teacher who sponsored a plan to do away with the written portion of the test, said the new law "maintains the status quo."

But critics of the plan were stopped in their tracks this year when a bipartisan array of the state's 'big guns'--including editorial writers, business leaders, former Democratic Gov. Wallace G. Wilkinson, and the Kentucky Education Association--came out to fight for the measure's passage.

"The debate turned into whether we keep reform and continue that vision that every child should be taught well or whether we give that up," said Robert F. Sexton, the executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a nonpartisan statewide coalition of citizens and educators, based in Lexington, Ky. "Although the political debate over what to teach and how you measure it will go on, that vision was reaffirmed."

CATS Specifics

Under the new law, the state education department will develop CATS with three testing advisory panels, to be appointed by the governor and lawmakers this spring, including a panel of testing experts, a committee of lawmakers, and a coalition of teachers, parents, and other citizens.

In addition to coming up with a new test, the department has been charged with setting up a rating system in which rewards for successful test scores will be distributed to schools for school-related expenses, rather than, as under KIRIS, to teachers individually.

Sanctions, or state assistance, for low-performing schools will also be reworked under the new law to include: mandatory audits for struggling schools; eligibility to receive CATS school improvement money; education assistance from highly skilled, certified state staff members rather than--as under KIRIS--so-called distinguished educators, who were experienced, state-paid teachers or administrators; and the option for students at low-performing schools to transfer to successful ones. Like the test itself, the new rating system has yet to be determined.

In addition, under CATS, school officials will be required to distribute to parents and the local news media school report cards that will assess students' academic achievement and provide information on extracurricular activities and parent involvement.

While the bill-signing ceremony gave most lawmakers an opportunity to breathe a collective sigh of relief, the real work--coming up with a new test and rating system and devising an implementation plan for the new program--is the charge of the education department, whose staff is racing to finish its work before next spring.

Much To Do

"A sense of relief lasted about 24 hours" after lawmakers ended a three-month stalemate by passing the plan in March, said Lisa Gross, an education department spokeswoman. "We've got a big job in front of us."

State schools chief Wilmer S. Cody, however, conceded only that it will be a long and busy summer. He said the time line will be manageable because the new law leaves the major parts of the Kentucky Education Reform Act in place. "We're not starting from scratch, but making modifications to the system," Mr. Cody said.

The department has been routinely singled out by lawmakers and education groups for its perceived mismanagement of KIRIS and for failing to quell rising public concern about the state testing system. Citing those and other problems, the 150,000-member Kentucky Congress of Parents and Teachers voted "no confidence" in the department in August.

Although Karen C. Jones, the president of the Frankfort-based organization, said she supports the new law because it broadens parental oversight of state reform efforts, she added that she's hesitant about the department's role in devising the program.

"Despite the mismanagement and everything that has happened, the department of education is key to the accountability provision being successful," Ms. Jones said. "If they mess up, we are all sunk, and education reform could be dead in the water."

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