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March 4, 2008

Reading, writing and counting cards: Casinos and education keep the drama high in Frankfort

Seeing that the road to a vote on a casino gambling amendment still wasn’t as smooth as they would have liked last week, Kentucky House of Representatives leadership deftly removed one of the stumbling blocks — a fellow representative.Two proposed casino gambling plans initially fell flat before the House elections and constitutional amendments committee. But after adjournment — and after Rep. Dottie Sims, D-Horse Cave, was taken off the committee and replaced by two other Democrats who would not vote against the version of the casino gambling bill that needed support, as she had earlier that day — the bill favored by House Speaker Jody Richards, D-Bowling Green, passed. The two-for-one switch succeeded in moving the legislation along to the House floor for debate, possibly this week. The General Assembly will see a scaled down version of the plan Gov. Steve Beshear unveiled last month. The proposal that originally called for a dozen casinos, five to be located at racetracks, now calls for nine casinos without racetrack-specific designations. The first plan had support among the state’s equine industry, which had feared that money now spent betting on horse racing would start disappearing into slot machines. That safety net came loose last week, however, when the language was changed to say that “no more than five” of the casinos could be located at racetracks, giving the industry a nod but ending its guarantee. The committee also rejected a version favored by House Speaker Pro Tem Larry Clark, D-Louisville, and Whip Rob Wilkey, D-Scottsville, but it was the more personal rejection of Sims that took the spotlight. Richards said he removed her because she voted differently than she’d indicated she would — namely, against the measure he favored. Neither one could be reached for comment for this story.Clark, who sent a dozen roses to Sims’ office at the Capitol as a way to apologize for the sins of his fellow representatives, said the matter was dealt with shabbily.“I thought the way the situation was handled was very embarrassing for her,” Clark told LEO. “If you want to remove somebody from a committee there are ways to do it. It was embarrassing for her and embarrassing for the institution for things to be handled like that in public.”Clark was adamant that in 24 years serving the House, he had never witnessed that sort of behavior.Another bill causing steam to rise from heads all over the state would change the makeup of Kentucky’s standardized testing, CATS (Commonwealth Accountability Testing System). The bill would end the current open-ended question format, which requires students to compose written answers, and replace it with more multiple-choice questions. CATS can look like an annual stress-athon for teachers, parents and students, trying to make sure kids measure up to the tenets of President Bush’s much-maligned No Child Left Behind initiative, which gives states strict test-based standards without the funding to meet them. Education reform that occurred in Kentucky in the early 1990s moved away from multiple-choice tests to the essay format, but over the years more and more multiple-choice questions have appeared. Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, and other CATS opponents argue that the results generated by a multiple-choice format would be more useful to teachers, and would paint a more accurate picture of how Kentucky students compare to others in the nation. And because a computer is all that is needed to score a test and report results, the process is quicker and cheaper.Fort Thomas school superintendent John Williamson testified before the Senate Education Committee last week that efficiency was a key issue, and different tests would cut a two-week testing process that generates results four months later down to three days, with results just two weeks later. It would also save about $6 million a year, music to the ears of a cash-strapped legislature.A teacher at the hearing called test results from the current format too vague, and said they could mislead parents into believing their kids are performing better than they really are according to national standards. At the same time, multiple choice tests allow students to select the right answer based only on their knowledge of how test questions work, without needing an actual understanding of the topic covered. Coaching on how to ascertain the right answer on multiple-choice tests is standard material for the test preparation services millions of students buy to prepare for standardized tests like the SAT and ACT.The speedier tests would eliminate the opportunity to assess not only how well students understand material, but also how well they can make reasoned arguments and communicate that understanding to others, skills opponents say translate into real life much better than guessing and filling in circles. At the same time, what multiple choice lacks in depth it can make up for in breadth, allowing tests to cover a much wider range of material in a similar amount of time. The committee took no action on the matter after heated testimony Thursday, but scheduled a special meeting that was to take place yesterday. Contact the writer at citystrobe@leoweekly.com

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