Wednesday, April 08, 2009

CATS- Episode 2009

By Penney Sanders

Now that the KY General Assembly has adjourned, it may be safe to venture a few observations about what happened to the CATS assessment.

SB 1/HB508 reflected much needed updating and modifications to KY’s assessment system-CATS. It was not the end of school reform as we know it, contrary to the comments of some. Most school people, especially classroom teachers, have known for several years that there needed to be revisions to the test. It was cumbersome, took too much instructional time, did not provide useful data, etc, etc.

However, up until March 2009, the voices calling for changes to CATS had been effectively rebuffed no matter how reasonable the concerns expressed. In the 2008 Session, a previous iteration of SB1 was introduced. In some ways it was quite similar to the bill filed in this session. However, the 2008 version was met with tremendous opposition and the bill did not move forward. It was politicized, polarized and ultimately pulverized

What was the difference this year??? The changes in CATS legislation are an excellent example of the “Tipping Point”. As described in Malcolm Glidewell’s bestseller of the same name, there is a point at which an issue (legislation), despite previous resistance, changes; there becomes significant support for or opposition to that which was once thought unchangeable and suddenly it “tips.” There are other examples of tipping points-popularity, elections or public issues.

Criticism of CATS began in 1995 with the publication of the OEA’s report from their national panel of testing experts who identified problems with the assessment, then called KIRIS. Many of those problems could have been anticipated because testing for accountability was in its infancy and Kentucky was at the forefront of attempting such a broad-based test.

Over the years the changes to KIRIS/CATS at best, were band aids and at worst, exacerbated the weaknesses. The needed revisions and updates did not occur because of the prevailing and pervasive belief that changing the assessment somehow undermined school reform.

Now there is the opportunity to create a Kentucky test that reflects the best current thinking in psychometrics, revisit Kentucky’s instructional standards and implement a useful assessment.

Transforming the test to one based on individual student accountability and improvement from year to year reflects the current thinking in assessment and may prove to be a more accurate measurement of a school’s progress.

If significant numbers of students fail to make progress each year, then it is obvious something is wrong. On-demand writing may prove to be less cumbersome and time-consuming than portfolios.

Such a “Value Added” approach will encourage significant focus on what is occurring in the classroom and less on peripheral issues.

A second phenomenon was also present in the history of SB1/HB538 –the “argumentum ad homenum”-loosley translated it means attacking the man, not the argument. It is the lowest form of disputation. However, we have seen years of attacking the messenger rather than focusing on the merits of the message.

Throughout the 2009 session, until its last days, the voices that have been critical of CATS for several years were once again subjected to the attacks on their person. In my mind the low point, was the continued criticism and allegations from some that revising CATS was part of a right-wing attack on education led by those “rascal” Republicans. With the House vote of 93-0 and support from KEA to abolish CATS in its current form and to develop a new assessment, it is ridiculous to continue to pretend that somehow any opposition to testing must be rooted in ideology or political partisanship.

Kentucky has a wonderful opportunity over the next three years to create an assessment that reflects Kentucky’s academic standards. Additionally, it can be an assessment that is a useful diagnostic and instructional tool.

Furthermore, as we move forward to discuss and legislate other important issues, let us remember some of the lessons learned from KIRIS/CATS-that voices of criticism are not necessarily those of opposition but rather of different perspectives. As we undertake the comprehensive KERA review, the focus must be on the merits of the arguments rather than attributing motives and motivation to personalities and politics.

The Governor has created a unique opportunity to bring diverse voices and perspectives to this important discussion so that we can create the best possible education system. It is, hopefully, a new day and an opportunity that cannot be missed or misused.

1 comment:

Susan Weston said...


Who do you count in this "some" who opposed revising CATS?

I agree that the Courier-Journal editorials may fit the bill. Beyond that, who would you name?

Not Bob Sexton, who wrote about four major changes ripe for consideration in January, all of which appear in the final bill.

Not any of the superintendent signatories to the "Sustaining the Commitment white paper issued a year ago (available at

Jon Draud and Joe Brothers did argue against substantial change during last fall's meetings of the Commissioner's Task Force. My understanding was that they thought the promise of proficiency by 2014 could not be met if we changed the measuring system--and that keeping the promise was a matter of honor for them both. However, neither man played a major role in this spring's legislative debate--and neither would use "Republican" as an insult.

Among elected officials, the only opposition I can remember is Trey Grayson's concern about civics in interim accountability--and the Secretary, too, is unlikely to have used "Republican" unkindly.

The debate I saw this year was about ways and means and dates and responsibilities in a change process. If there were active participants arguing that change should be avoided, I truly don't know who they were.

Can you add names?