Kentucky’s recently released academic test scores should be setting off alarm bells in many schools and communities across the Commonwealth. Sadly, the scores – which remained flat statewide and decreased in Jefferson County – are getting tepid reactions from education leaders.
Strong leadership in some districts led to bright spots where academic gains were made; however, overall 2016-2017 assessment results show that tens of thousands of Kentucky students are not making the grade. Of the third graders tested, only 55.8 percent of students scored at least proficient in reading.
Third graders fared even worse in mathematics, with only 50.9 percent of students scoring at least proficient on the mathematics K-PREP exam. Performance for third-grade students in Jefferson County was even more troubling, with only 46.2 percent of third graders scoring at least proficient in reading, and the same percentage of students scoring proficient or distinguished in mathematics. That means less than half of the nearly 8,000 third-grade students tested in Jefferson County can read or do math at their grade level. In all, Jefferson County Public Schools filled 16 of the bottom 20 positions in reading for grades 3-8 in the state, while enrolling only 15 percent of Kentucky’s students.
Even more upsetting are the performance results for students who qualify for free- or reduced-price meals. Overall, 2016-2017 results on state exams changed very little from a year before. As parents, community members and educational leaders across the state, we should be so troubled by student performance in all regions of Kentucky that we struggle to sleep tonight.
Kentucky Department of Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt was quoted in the Louisville Courier-Journal saying, “We’ve got to do something,” adding that this provides an “opportunity” to focus on instructional methods and possibly the testing system. I would argue, however, that this is an opportunity to again sound the alarm that tens of thousands of children in Jefferson County and hundreds of thousands of children across Kentucky are not learning at the levels they must be in order to be prepared for success in careers, college, and life. What educational leaders have failed to provide is a well-defined plan for making the dramatic gains in student learning and educational attainment needed if our state is to realize its potential.
Dismal academic performance in students’ early years results in continued struggles to attain academic success in school. Studies show that students who do not read proficiently by the end of the school year in third grade are four times more likely to not graduate high school. To put this into perspective, 17,000 students in Jefferson county classrooms are currently on track to drop out of high school. Many of those that do graduate will still face challenges with college admission and success in postsecondary education, ultimately leading to lackluster prospects for a fulfilling career.
Consider this. In 2009, there were 46,000 12th-grade public school students in the state. Of those, approximately 4,000 students did not graduate. While 1,000 of them may later go on to earn a GED, 3,000 are still facing a median annual wage of just $12,700 seven years after high school. The 14,000 students with a high school diploma but no college credentials can expect a median income of $19,247 seven years beyond graduation, while those who complete anything from a college certification to a four-year degree can expect wages of $25,300 and above.
It is time for Kentucky to end the continued self-congratulations about how much progress we have made educationally since the days of KERA. We must acknowledge that student learning and performance across our state is far from what it needs to be if our children are to have a chance at success in the 21st-century economy, and to compete in future job markets with students from other states.
Further, it is time for education leaders across the state to develop and implement plans that are having success in other states. Kentucky’s public education system must rise to the occasion and do something it has never done before — provide all Kentucky students, regardless of wealth or zip code – with educational opportunities designed to meet their specialized learning needs and prepare them for success in college and careers. Doing so will improve the quality of life in our state, and improve the lives of Kentuckians for generations to come. Doing anything less is simply unacceptable.
Hal Heiner is secretary of the Kentucky Education & Workforce Development Cabinet.