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Education Reporter
Kentucky's KIRIS Gets New Life as 'CATS'
Conservatives fear that only the name will change
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FRANKFORT, KY - After years of struggle, the battle to overturn the expensive, seriously flawed, and ineffective state testing system known as the Kentucky Instructional Results Information System (KIRIS) is over, at least for now. Some changes are almost certain to be made following the passage of a compromise testing bill, which Governor Paul E. Patton signed into law on April 15. The new test (to be developed) will be dubbed the Commonwealth Accountability Testing System (CATS) in honor of the national basketball champions at the University of Kentucky. The question is, will the new test be an improvement over KIRIS?

Conservatives are skeptical. "Clearly, they want to cash in on the passionate public support for our beloved state basketball team," says Kentucky Eagle Forum's Donna Shedd. "It was amazingly, yet unashamedly claimed during legislative committee debate that the problem with KIRIS was simply public relations. Yet there has been a tremendous public outcry for the test's demise."

In 1990, the Kentucky legislature passed the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA) in response to a court order to overhaul the state's failing public school system. The centerpiece of the reform measure was KIRIS, the first assessment test of its kind in the country. According to State Sen. Gex (pronounced Jay) Williams, it was developed behind closed doors by education bureaucrats and politicians. "Teachers were not consulted, nor were school administrators," Williams says. "The public was not informed. Even the state Board of Education was largely in the dark until legislative studies and Office of Education Accountability-sponsored studies revealed major flaws in the test."

KIRIS created controversy for two reasons. First, it required subjective, essay-style answers to open-ended questions. Second, it established a system of rewards and sanctions which depended on schools' test results. Schools and teachers whose students did well received cash rewards. Those that did poorly got state intervention. Independent studies re-peatedly found that the tests and portfolios were technically unreliable and invalid. Additionally, because KIRIS places great emphasis on attitudes, there was little demand for basic skills.

Public frustration and dis-atisfaction continued to grow, particularly among teachers and parents. In 1997, the state fired its New Hampshire contractor for the $8 million-a-year test over a scoring controversy surrounding the 1996 test.

In the state legislature, Republican calls for reform reached a crescendo, with Sen. Williams leading a crusade to scrap KIRIS altogether and replace it with a standardized test. Donna Shedd explains: "Early in the 1998 legislative session, Sen. Williams introduced S.B. 113, which would have stopped KIRIS immediately and called for the administering of a nationally-normed, standardized test. Such a test would have cost a fraction of what KIRIS costs, and would enable parents to compare their children's education to that of children in other states."

In fact, Williams' bill reflected the will of the people of Kentucky. One senator, for example, reported that he had received 1,700 calls from constituents demanding the test's demise, and only 65 in favor of keeping it. Even Senate Democratic Leader David Karem, who was head of the committee that designed the program, complained that "they have allowed, unchecked, the perception to grow of problem, problem, problem, until now it has its own momentum."

In February, the Kentucky Senate passed, by a vote of 35 to 1, a bill that incorporated much of S.B. 113, and would have eliminated KIRIS after students were tested this spring. When the bill reached the House, the Democratic chairman of the Education Committee refused to hear it, and the House instead began preparing its own legislation. The resulting House bill did not throw the system out altogether, but called for an overhaul of the test. The bills became deadlocked. "The stalemate made lawmakers very nervous," notes Mrs. Shedd. The Governor, the liberal media, and big business organized a rally and ran media promotions in support of the status quo bill, the House version. It was difficult for the grassroots parents and teachers to compete."

The Senate leadership went back to the drawing board and hammered out a final compromise, which passed the Senate with only four of the 18 Republicans in favor. Sen. Williams called the final bill "a cave-in." It required students to take the KIRIS test this spring, with $28 million in taxpayer-funded reward money to be distributed to teachers, despite the proven unreliability of the test results. The new legislation continues appropriating reward money, though it will go to the schools for improvements beginning in 2000.

The bill mandates that the new CATS test to be developed for 1999 shall include both multiple-choice and essay questions. Many decisions, including whether or not portfolios will be part of the assessments, are being left up to the Kentucky Department of Education - the same bureaucracy that previously threw out the reliable multiple-choice questions. The bill sets up a legislative subcommittee to advise the state school board and review regulations on assessment and accountability. A new 15-person advisory council will be appointed by the Governor, and the state will recruit a national panel of testing experts. Donna Shedd asks: "Dare Kentucky hope to get a council and panel who have no vested interest in the previous system and at least a modicum of fiscal responsibility?"

Fallout from the battle over KIRIS is continuing. The Kentucky Commissioner of Education has fired the person in charge of public relations, who was reportedly earning a salary of $78,000 per year. The short development time for CATS may create problems for the new test before it is generated, because it places the Department of Education and its contractors under such tight time constraints. Ironically, Gex Williams' original legislation would have temporarily suspended all rewards and sanctions for a couple of years to allow a new assessment system to be developed.

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