Ky. Senate Panel Approves State Test Overhaul

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The engine driving Kentucky's landmark school reforms should not be scrapped but needs a major overhaul, a state legislative committee has decided.

By a 10-2 vote, the Senate education committee approved a bill last week that would not only change the state tests students take, but also erase several years' worth of judgments about school effectiveness that have been made based on the test scores. Even the most troubled schools would, in effect, see their slates wiped clean--immediately.

The action represented a bipartisan compromise, legislators said, and was brokered in the face of public and political sentiment--as well as expert testimony--that has been building against the assessment system and the rewards and penalties that have been linked to it.

Legislators who voted for the proposal argued that the current system of holding educators accountable based on how students do on the test simply does not work. They said educators and the public can no longer put faith in the results, largely because the assessment has undergone too many changes and produced too many inconsistent results.

More than one lawmaker said the choice was to change the current system or see it die. "Honestly, I believe that a failure to resolve the situation could derail our reforms," said Sen. Lindy Casebier, the Republican co-chairman of the education committee. "We're trying to salvage what we can."

Yet, he added, "it's a little too premature for cynics to say we've abandoned accountability totally."

Commerical Testing

The testing program, the Kentucky Instructional Results Information System, or KIRIS, was created in 1991 as part of a court-ordered overhaul of Kentucky's schools. It has been hailed nationally as cutting-edge.

Under the Senate bill, this spring's testing of grades 4, 5, 7, 8, 11, and 12 would take place as planned. But schools would not be classified by their students' performance. Unlike current practice, no money rewards would go to schools that did well, and no schools would be punished with outside intervention. Instead, every school in the state would receive a "school improvement" award this school year.

The bill also would require the state to give students a national, commercially available test this school year that would provide results for individual students compared against a national norm. Students in grades 3 and higher, except for grade 11, would take the commercial test in subject areas that KIRIS does not test. In addition, the bill calls for the state to give the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills to grades 3, 6, and 9 this year.

For the future, the compromise bill would pass oversight on testing and accountability to an arm of the legislature known as the Office of Education Accountability. To make changes to the assessment or to create a new formula for judging schools, the state education department would have to go through the OEA before seeking approval from the state school board.

Questions on the revamped KIRIS, which would be known as the Commonwealth Assessment and Accountability Program, could be open-response, multiple-choice, or both. The test now is a mix of the two types of items, but the multiple-choice ones do not count toward decisions about school performance. Writing portfolios of student work would also be included, but they would not count toward accountability.

The bill would also build a new accountability system, with the 1998-99 and 1999-2000 school years as the starting points for tracking the progress of students and schools. Both a school's academic and nonacademic factors, such as student attendance, would have to be taken into consideration, the bill says.

No Compromise?

Observers predicted the legislation would likely pass the Senate, but could see amendments on the floor. In the House, a bill with less sweeping changes is expected.

For now, though, the Senate bill is "a bad piece of legislation," said Robert F. Sexton, the director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a citizens' group based in Lexington. "If that was a compromise, I can see only what the other side got."

Mr. Sexton said that the test and the accountability system both need revisions, such as broadening evaluations about school accomplishments beyond how a school's students perform on the test.

But Sen. Tim Shaughnessy, the Democratic co-chairman of the education committee, blasted those who would second-guess lawmakers' difficulty in preserving any of the current system--and the intent of the Kentucky Education Reform Act.

"Despite incredible odds and recurring obstacles and growing political opposition, we have stayed the course," he argued. "And we are now in a position to move forward with the bipartisan support we've never had in the past, which I think says KERA will never be repealed."

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