KERA about to reach 20th anniversary

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By The Staff

A little less than a year from now, our state will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Kentucky Education Reform Act, widely considered to be one of the most important laws ever adopted by the General Assembly.

The legislation filled more than 900 pages, and within them were about 30 distinct ideas that, like the inner workings of a clock, depended on each other for reform to work.

It was a bold step at the time, but an array of national studies since then has repeatedly shown that our students have made significant strides in less than a generation.

In recent years, however, these studies have also shown that our progress has begun to slow.  Several weeks ago, for example, the Kentucky Long-Term Policy Research Center reported that Kentucky had dropped to 35th among the states in 2007 in its annual Education Index, down a spot from 2005.  The current index is composed of 11 categories ranging from scores on national tests to dropout rates and the percentage of adults ages 25 to 64 with a high school diploma.

While we have come a long way since 1992, when our ranking was 43rd, other states have begun matching us stride for stride, making our steady climb more difficult to maintain.

A comparison with the nation’s top 10 states in the center’s index underscores just how much more work we have in front of us.  The only area where we exceeded the average of those states in 2007 was fourth grade science.  In the area of math, meanwhile, our fourth and eighth graders underperformed significantly.

To re-energize the spirit of reform, the General Assembly put its unanimous support in March behind Senate Bill 1.  The legislation reflects the nearly two decades’ worth of real-world knowledge we have gained since KERA’s passage, and once it is fully enacted, students, parents and teachers alike will have a better understanding of where our schools need to be and a clearer idea of how to get there.

The legislation doesn’t tinker with most aspects of KERA, such as funding or local school control, but it does deal directly with the heart of it: the development of new academic standards and the tests that measure them.

There had been a growing concern that the tests, known as CATS, were not fulfilling their potential.  Many complained they took too long to give and score, that they did not measure individual progress from year to year and that they limited teachers in the classroom.

Senate Bill 1 addresses each of these and more.  The changes begin this spring, and will take another two school years to fully implement.

During this interim, school progress will still be measured by such things as the federal No Child Left Behind act and national tests.  In the meantime, local and state school officials will devise a replacement for CATS, one that will take less time to give – five days instead of 10 – and be given toward the end of the school year rather than several weeks earlier.  Scores will also be returned within 75 days, rather than by the first of November.

Writing portfolios, the collection of work that students write and edit during the year, will no longer be included in schools’ accountability scores, but on-demand writing will.

Public university faculty and staff will help write the standards for older students, in the hope that it will reduce the need for remedial classes once the students are in a postsecondary school.

It will take time to turn this 76-page law into reality, but its long-term goals already appear to have broad support in the education community.  As one advocate put it, by early 2011, Kentucky will have academic expectations that are “clearer, shorter, and better aligned with higher education and international benchmarks.”

This comes at the same time the Department of Education is searching for a new commissioner to lead the way forward.  The right person for the job is crucial, but the company conducting the search is fortunately the same one that came up with the current leaders of the University of Kentucky, Northern Kentucky University, and the Council on Postsecondary Education, all highly respected in their field.

Representative Rick Rand