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Beshear: Benefits Of CATS Bill Outweigh Concerns

From Kentucky Public Radio's Tony McVeighListen NowSchool accountability standards in Kentucky will be radically redesigned under landmark legislation approved by the 2009 General Assembly.In early February, in his State of the Commonwealth address, Democratic Governor Steve Beshear signaled a surprising willingness to reform the historic Kentucky Education Reform Act, or KERA, which mandated equitable funding, student assessment and school accountability.“Kentucky impressed the nation in 1990 with its commitment to reshaping its school system, and the benefits for our kids and our state have been significant and measurable. But, folks, that was nearly two decades ago,” Beshear said.Senate Republican leaders, who for years have been pushing for KERA reforms, are particularly critical of the test used to measure school performance. Senate President David Williams says the Commonwealth Accountability Testing System, or CATS, must go.“It was said on the House floor and everyone agrees that the CATS test serves no further purpose. But we have to have a test in place that complies with No Child Left Behind. It does not give individual information for students that are valid and it never has given that and that was the whole purpose of No Child Left Behind,” said Williams.After intense negotiations, the House and Senate agreed to scrap the CATS test and replace it with a new accountability and testing system for the 2011-2012 school year. The new system will reduce the amount of time schools spend on testing and track individual student performance.While the system is being developed, schools will still test in the areas of math, science, reading and social studies. But federal accountability standards will apply, and only math and reading scores are used to measure school performance under those standards. That concerns Bob Sexton of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence (pictured)                                                     “I was always very proud of Kentucky from the very start because we looked at all the subjects, put the emphasis on all the subjects. We’re not going to do that anymore and we’re very concerned that schools will de-emphasize those and concentrate way too much on reading and math, which is what’s happened in many other states,” Sexton said.Another change removes the writing portfolio requirement from the interim testing plan, but House Education Committee Chairman Carl Rollins, who helped negotiate the agreement, says it’s not a backward step.“There will still be a writing portfolio that will follow the student all the way through K-12. And there will still be on-demand writing prompts in the accountability system. But there will not be a grading of the individual portfolios that ranks the students, you know, based on their skills,” Rollins said.But Bob Sexton of the Prichard Committee isn’t convinced the state’s going in the right direction.“The end result I’m afraid could be that young people will not be as prepared for writing at the college level, or afterwards, using the portfolios," Sexton said. "I think it’s very unfortunate."Governor Steve Beshear also has some concerns about the interim testing system, but says now that he’s had time to study the bill, he intends to sign it into law.“If I had a pen and could write it all myself, I might do it differently than what was done. But there will be some accountability in the interim and I think, long-term, what we’re going to end up with, the benefits of that’s going to far outweigh any concerns that I have,” Beshear said.Within 30 days of enactment of the legislation, another key provision kicks in. It requires state universities to work with the Kentucky Department of Education to develop new curriculum standards, to better prepare students for college and reduce the burgeoning need for college remedial courses.

Rick Howlett is host of WFPL's weekly talk show, "In Conversation." Email Rick at rhowlett@lpm.org.