Vote in Ky. House May Presage KIRIS Battle

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After months of studied and sometimes passionate debate, the fate of Kentucky's school testing program has boiled down to two starkly different bills moving through the Statehouse: One calls for a few small repairs, and the other for a total overhaul.

Last week, the House education committee voted 16-1 for a measure that would keep in place a slightly tweaked version of KIRIS, shorthand for the Kentucky Instructional Results Information System.

Among other changes, the House bill would streamline the writing portions of the test and simplify schools' performance goals and classifications. Under the House proposal, the system's high-stakes accountability--the rewards and sanctions doled out to teachers based on their students' performance--would continue.

The Senate passed a bill 35-1 last month that would render next month's round of KIRIS testing meaningless, require an almost entirely new testing system by next year, and, most notably, suspend state efforts to hold districts accountable for their performance on the assessments until at least 2002.

In the wake of the Senate vote, backers of the House plan came out in force. The most notable was Gov. Paul E. Patton, who said through a spokeswoman last week that he was endorsing the House measure. ("Ky. Senate Panel Approves State Test Overhaul," Feb. 18, 1998.)

"We believe we can make corrections to KIRIS testing and maintain accountability and rewards while making changes we support," Gov. Patton, a Democrat, said. "We're going to fix [the Kentucky Education Reform Act]."

KIRIS, a series of several different types of tests that emphasize reading, writing, and analytical thinking, measures schools against their own performance goals. Schools that exceed their goals receive cash rewards from the state that teachers can use however they choose. Schools with lagging scores face state sanctions, ranging from probation to a state takeover. So far, low-performing schools have only received extra help from the state, according to Lisa Gross, the spokeswoman for the state education department.

'Thanking God for Mississippi'

Before its nearly unanimous vote on March 2, the House education committee heard testimony from 13 speakers, most of whom championed the tests. In the weeks leading up to the Senate vote, by comparison, the assessment program was under constant attack, with experts and teachers decrying everything from its cost--$100 million over the past four years--to the tests' validity, fairness, and management. ("Ky. Test Scores Up as KIRIS Criticism Lingers," Dec. 10, 1997.)

Rep. Harry Moberly Jr., a Democrat and the lead sponsor of House Bill 627, told education committee members March 2 that the Senate measure would lead state schools back to where they before the passage of the reform act in 1990, "when we were [ranked] 49th and 50th and thanking God for Mississippi and Arkansas."

One of the more disputed aspects of the Senate bill is a provision that would toss out the state's academic-content standards and require new ones in their place, a provision that critics say would cause mass confusion in Kentucky classrooms. The House bill would keep the standards in place.

Rep. Freed Curd, the Democratic chairman of the House education committee, said in an interview that his chamber's bill is closer to what voters want and what lawmakers promised to deliver when Kentucky "raised taxes to put education reform in schools."

"We said we'd deliver the best education system possible," Rep. Curd, a longtime teacher, said. "We certainly don't need to go back to the old, traditional ways of lectures, workbooks, and multiple-choice exams. ... Innovation has done wonderful things to engage kids."

Another proponent of the House bill, Robert F. Sexton, the executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a statewide advocacy group based in Lexington, contended that the Senate bill would set schools back a generation.

"Is starting all over again the answer? I don't believe it is," he said.

The bill now moves to the full House, where a vote could take place this week.

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