Local school officials seem generally positive about changes in the state’s Commonwealth Accountability Testing System
Senate Bill 1, which was signed into law by Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear last month, basically scraps the current CATS test in favor of a new test for the 2011-12 school year.
During the interim period, students will take a mix of tests and assessments.
Dennis Byrd, Superintendent for the Williamsburg School District, said while some have criticized the legislation – particular for the three-year interim period during which they claim schools can basically shirk accountability – he feels more positive about the changes.
"I think it will give us time to look at our curriculum and the things we are doing and it will be a nice couple of years to get back to the basics, which I think is so important," Byrd said. "There’s still enough public reporting required that schools aren’t going to be able to duck under a rock and hide in a cave for two years."
Loren Connell, Director of Instruction for the district, said under CATS, curriculum in the school was so structured and mandated from the top down, it allowed little freedom for school districts.
"It gives us a little more leeway to make some decisions on our own," Connell said. "This gives us the ability to look at what we are doing and improve on that right now. Current content standards really restrict us."
The legislation also allows school districts to slip free of being accountable for writing portfolios, a system devised to improved the written communication skills of Kentucky students, but often criticized as being a bloated an inefficient way to approach the issue.
"I am glad the portfolio process is changing," said Brenda Hammons, Assistant Superintendent with the Corbin Independent School System. "A lot of our resources, time and money were being used on writing portfolios and I think it was a little skewed."
Like many, Corbin plans to continue, at least this year, with writing portfolios, but won’t be held accountable by the state for evaluating and reporting them.
Some content areas that district are currently being held accountable for will change and instead will undergo periodic reviews by the state Department of Education to determine if they are adequate. Hammons notes that schools, in the interim at least, will not be held accountable for practical living and vocational studies or arts and humanities.
"We can score them if we want to," Hammons said. "Our kids have worked all year on that, so I feel like we need to do something to make sure the student efforts are going to be noticed."
Hammons said she believes the changes are "on the right track." Byrd said he thinks change will enable schools to focus more on reading and math skills.
"No one really knows what the new standards are going to look like," Connell noted.
Byrd said officials he’s talked too have been floating the idea of "exit exams" for classes and limiting the number of tests students have to take, while at the same time putting more emphasis on getting schools and districts in line with national No Child Left Behind standards.
In the end, Hammons said the changes on the local level would be about more than just altering a system of grading.
"It’s about changing the culture that teachers have that we need to do what is best for kids," she said. "If we really believe all kids can learn, we need to be walking the talk."