The state's top education officials acknowledged Monday that Kentucky's academic standards and student testing system need major overhauls, but cautioned against making hasty changes.
The declaration, made in a position paper released by the Kentucky Department of Education and Kentucky Board of Education, comes as state lawmakers contemplate dramatic changes to Kentucky's education system in coming weeks, including a Republican-led push to revamp math standards and the Commonwealth Accountability Testing System, or CATS.
Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear also requested a thorough review of the 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act in his State of the Commonwealth Message last week.
Critics of the Education Department say its proposal looks like an attempt to do too little, too late.
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"This whole position paper stretches out deadlines," said Jim Waters, director of planning and communications at the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy. "It's very un-ambitious; it doesn't promise any meaningful changes to the state testing system for years."
Department of Education spokeswoman Lisa Gross said Monday that education officials began working on their position paper well before current legislative discussions.
"We've been talking about this for months, probably more than a year," she said. "It's just time to do it."
The state Board of Education is expected to vote on the paper at its next meeting starting Tuesday.
According to Gross, the first step would be developing new academic standards that are "higher, clearer, fewer and narrower." Once that is accomplished, the state can develop a test to cover the new standards.
She said the process probably would start with math standards, which already are targeted for updating under a Senate joint resolution moving through the legislature. Eventually, standards for all subjects would be reviewed, she said.
The timing ultimately would hinge on what the legislature does on education in the current session, which ends March 27, she said.
Gross said developing new standards would require input from many experts — "we don't want to do this by ourselves. That would be unwise" — and probably would take many months.
"We think that in 18 to 24 months we could have a good start on math standards," she said. Ultimately, some kind of formal group probably would have to be formed to oversee the process, she said.
Senate Majority Floor Leader Dan Kelly, R-Springfield, said the position paper made it clear that the Education Department agrees with most of the major points in Senate Bill 1, which would rework CATS by eliminating open-response questions and removing writing portfolios from the assessment.
"But they would like to go slow," he said. "I don't think it's unusual for bureaucracies to want to go slow. But I think that the mood in the General Assembly is to go as quickly as possible."
Kelly said the Education Department has "been resistant to change" in the past, but officials now clearly see the writing on the wall.
Even Rep. Harry Moberly, one of KERA's staunchest defenders, said there will be major changes made to the testing system this legislative session.
"Everybody is now on board to look at changes," said Moberly, D-Richmond. "Everyone either concedes or believes that changes are necessary."
As a result, Kentucky's students and teachers will almost certainly be looking at a dramatically different way of assessing their progress in the future.
Currently, schools are measured by how much they progress on the state test. Every school is supposed to reach a score of 100 out of 140 by 2014.
But most agree that the state now needs to assess individual student progress, not the progress of schools. So it will be difficult to compare scores from the old system to a new one.
"There just can't be a bridge built between those two systems," said Wayne Young, director of the Kentucky Association of School Administrators.
His group favors continued testing for schools' informational purposes while retooling the whole system. But it could be confusing for teachers as the state moves from one system to the next.
"We're stuck with two to three years of transition, no matter what we're testing," said educational consultant Susan Perkins Weston.
Helen Mountjoy, former chair of the state Board of Education who is now secretary of the Education and Workforce Development Cabinet, hopes the General Assembly will take the more measured approach of the Education Department, as opposed to Senate Bill 1.
She's worried that, in its present state, the bill would not meet federal requirements of the No Child Left Behind act, thus jeopardizing millions of dollars in federal funding. The law requires that testing systems be matched to state curriculum standards, something that's very hard to do with generic tests.
"It will be very difficult to demonstrate that an off-the-shelf test can match up with standards of learning that have been adopted in Kentucky," Mountjoy said.
Although it was considered a national frontrunner in student testing when it was created, Kentucky's testing system has been under fire for years. In 1998, the system changed to include multiple-choice questions, and in the past several years, the Senate Republican leadership has made several attempts to dramatically change CATS.
This year, some form of Senate Bill 1 looks much more likely to pass. For one thing, even KERA's longtime supporters are admitting it's time for a tune-up.
In addition, three of the testing system's staunchest advocates are no longer in power positions: House Speaker Jody Richards lost his seat to Rep. Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg; Moberly no longer chairs the House budget committee; and former House Education Chairman Frank Rasche, D-Paducah, took a job with the Education Department.
"The players have changed and the priorities have changed," said Wayne Young.
And despite lingering disagreements about how to assess educational improvement, most of the players agree that KERA needs a thorough review.
"It's been 18 years since KERA passed and we've had a number of changes made, but most of them have been reactive, not pro-active," Mountjoy said. "I think everyone agrees it's time to take a long, hard look, not just at assessment and accountability, but at our entire program of P-12 education."
June 1989: The Kentucky Supreme Court rules that the state public school system is unconstitutional and directs the General Assembly to create a system that provides an adequate education to all children.
April 1990: The Kentucky Education Reform Act is passed into law.
November 1995: The election of Paul Patton as governor is hailed as a victory for KERA supporters.
February 1998: Numerous bills to change the state testing system are introduced in the General Assembly. Some would revise the scoring system for the Kentucky Instructional Results Information System, or KIRIS. Others suggest tossing out the entire test system.
April 1998: The General Assembly passes laws to dismantle KIRIS testing and replaces it with a new test, part of which is standardized.
August 1999: The national Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills becomes part of Kentucky's school accountability program, now known as the Commonwealth Accountability Testing System, or CATS.
August 2001: For the first time, Kentucky students in third, sixth and ninth grades match or exceed the national average on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills.
Jan. 2002: President Bush signs into law the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.
Nov. 2003: Forty percent of the state's 1,179 elementary, middle and high schools fall below federal targets in NCLB.
April 2006: The state legislature passes a bill requiring all Kentucky 11th-graders to take the ACT college entrance exam starting in 2007.
Sept. 2007: Changes are made to CATS, including tweaks to the scoring process and the addition of math and reading tests at several grade levels.
Sept. 2008: About 49 percent of schools are on track to reach their mandated goal of scoring 100 on statewide achievement tests by 2014. The highest score possible is 140.