Franklin County

KERA reform gains momentum

FRANKFORT — A major revision of the 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act that could overhaul both curriculum standards and student testing is gaining bipartisan momentum, key lawmakers say.

"I think there is consensus that we should take a fresh look," said Rep. Harry Moberly, D-Richmond, a staunch supporter of the KERA reforms. "But I'm hoping we can make sure we don't abandon any of our reform principles."

Senate Republicans have offered several pieces of legislation addressing both the Commonwealth Accountability Testing System — the state's main assessment of school performance — and curriculum.

On Tuesday the Senate unanimously approved a measure that directs the Kentucky Department of Education to make mathematics standards more rigorous. And Thursday, legislation that would drastically revamp the CATS test had its first vetting of 2009 in a committee.

Instead of being met with fervent opposition from certain Democrats who have balked at working over the CATS test in the past, a willingness to compromise emerged.

"I think there's consensus that CATS needs to be sunset. It has run its course," Sen. Tim Shaughnessy, D-Louisville, told the Senate Education Committee.

It was the first time Shaughnessy has said so.

Sen. Ken Winters, R-Murray and the Senate's Education Committee chairman, postponed a vote on CATS bill, SB 1, until next week to give lawmakers time to discuss different approaches and get more input from education experts and groups, such as the Kentucky Education Association.

"At this point, everything is on the table," Winters said.

All this comes after Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear called for a "thorough review" of KERA in his State of the Commonwealth Message Wednesday night.

A number of state education leaders said Thursday that they would welcome a re-evaluation and updating of KERA, as long as it is comprehensive, carefully thought-out and preserves the best parts of the almost 20-year-old education reform act.

"I think it's very important, especially as we come up on the 20th anniversary of the passage of the reform," said Robert Sexton, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence. "The elements that the legislature likes to spend time on have to do with testing. But there are many other elements that we should ask ourselves about."

Sexton stressed that the entire reforms should be reviewed, rather than taking a piecemeal approach. And action should come after careful study, possibly by a legislative task force with input from education experts, he said.

"It's more important to do it right than to do it fast," he said.

Brad Hughes, a spokesman for the Kentucky School Boards Association, said there has been support among educators for some time in favor of reassessing KERA.

"That doesn't mean replace it," he said. "It means going back and take a focused reassessment of all the elements that were put in place in the beginning."

Fayette County Schools Superintendent Stu Silberman also said he'd be "supportive" of a broad review.

The current draft of the Senate bill aimed at reworking the CATS test would, among many provisions, eliminate open-response questions and would remove writing portfolios from the assessment. Portfolios still would be maintained for students in grades five through 12 — they just wouldn't be part of the test.

Moberly said the writing portfolio could use changes. But he said he'd oppose scrapping open-response questions to revert to multiple-choice-only tests. "I think that's completely against the intent of the education reform act," Moberly said.

Still, he said, the General Assembly must act to prevent administrators and teachers from being bogged down with practicing for the test for weeks on end.

"That's inappropriate and is one of the things I think teachers are complaining about," he said.

Sen. Dan Kelly, R-Spingfield, also said the CATS test has been sucking up too much valuable classroom time as the state spends $17 million per day on public school instruction. With 10 days of preparation, 10 days of testing and 10 days for mentally spent students and teachers to recover, that's nearly a half-billion dollars lost, he said.

Lawmakers from both parties have said the state must act to toughen standards and better prepare students for college. About 40 percent of Kentucky university freshmen in 2006 needed remedial math courses while 29 percent were unprepared in English, said Sue Cain, of Eastern Kentucky University, who presented those figures to the Council on Postsecondary Education last month.

Shaughnessy said it would be "troublesome" to overhaul curriculum standards and a statewide test simultaneously and that the legislature should tackle the standards first.