Senate bill would scratch CATS assessment

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By The Staff

By Brent Schanding

Landmark News Service

Educators and others testified at the Capitol Thursday about a bill to replace the state's student-testing system with nationally standardized tests.

Senate Bill 1 would eliminate the Commonwealth Accountability Testing System, or CATS, including its multiple-choice testing in the areas of arts and humanities. Portfolio components meant to judge schools on student writing abilities would also be abolished under SB 1. Both measures were mandated under the sweeping Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990.

Republicans pushing SB 1 say it will save the state more than $10 million in testing administration costs. It could also put up to 21 more days of instructional time into the school calendar and better prepare students for college, they claim.

"I'm a supporter of the bill. It's one of those last things we need to do to get a good assessment of our kids in school," Sen. Ernie Harris, R-Crestwood, said. "The new testing we're supporting would be more norm referenced."

That would allow state leaders to more accurately gauge the performance of Kentucky students, compared to their peers across the nation.

Time wasted on portfolios would be better spent on other things, Harris said.

"I'm not downplaying portfolios. Kids need to learn how to put their thoughts on paper better," he said. "But the kids spend an inordinate amount of time preparing their portfolios for grading."

While new testing proposals would also shift focuses from arts and humanities to math and science, Harris said the elimination of CATS and its portfolio accompaniment will be a valuable trade-off for teachers.

"If we can save days where teachers aren't teaching the tests, that's more time for arts and humanities," Harris said. "Arts and humanities are important, but where are we as a nation failing? Math and science."

According to Harris more than 40 percent of the state's incoming college freshmen require remedial instruction in those core areas. Standardized ACT and SAT scores also show students in the state are below par in math and science.

But Henry County Public Schools Superintendent Tim Abrams isn't convinced SB 1 will improve student achievement across the state. His district is part of a 14-member regional education cooperative - that includes Eminence Independent Schools - against the bill.

"I' not in support of it," Abrams said. "This bill does nothing to improve student achievement. It takes our state back to pure multiple-choice testing. That would be a major step back."

Kentucky has made major advancements under KERA, closing educational gaps between states that spend more money per pupil on education. While some say the Republican-led legislation will free up more than $10 million for education, it would amount to less than $10 per pupil, Abrams estimated.

"I just think having our kids apply the knowledge, analyze what they know, is much more important," he said. "That's some savings in money, and we always have to be worried with how we spend taxpayers money."

But it doesn't justify an eradication of arts-related instruction and assessment, he said.

While Abrams and a majority of educators across the state are calling SB 1 a misdirected partisan act, Harris strongly refutes that.

He says SB 1 was partly drafted by two former educators and a retired superintendent of schools. Teachers, principals, parents and many other constituents in his senate district have also overwhelmingly called for change, Harris said.

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