We hear a lot about all the progress that has been made since the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990 was enacted.

Except, the problem is that worthwhile tests like the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) don’t support those claims of substantial progress.

The graph below shows the earliest available and most recently available proficiency rates (Percentage of students scoring at or above NAEP’s “Proficient” standard) for reading, math, science and writing for Kentucky.

Note: Graph assembled by Innes from NAEP Data Explorer and 2011 NAEP Report Cards

While there has been a little progress in each area and grade, after 21 years of expensive education reform, little more than one out of three Kentucky fourth and eighth grade students are proficient in math and reading in 2011.

In fact, the real proficiency rates could be even lower because the NAEP is a statistically sampled assessment and all of its scores have plus and minus errors as a result. I don’t show the plus and minus “confidence intervals” around the scores to avoid cluttering up the graph, but they exist none the less. The errors vary a bit from test to test, but a quick estimate is that we can be around 95 percent confident that the true proficiency rate might vary by plus or minus two percentage points from the rates in the graph.

Let’s see what the oldest versus newest proficiency rates might tell us about the past 21 years.

The oldest NAEP results available are for grade 8 math, which was first tested in the states in 1990, the same year KERA was enacted. Back then, only 10 percent of Kentucky’s students scored at or above NAEP “Proficient.” In the new 2011 results, 31 percent of our eighth grade students scored at or above the NAEP “Proficient” level. So, in 21 years we improved by 21 percentage points, an average improvement rate of one percent per year.

I think it is fair to say we want to see our proficiency rate improve to at least the 80 percent region. At our current rate of improvement, that is going to take at least another half a century – Yes, Half a Century.

How about grade 8 reading? The first state NAEP in grade 8 reading wasn’t administered until 1998, and Kentucky had a 30 percent proficiency rate. Thirteen years later in 2011 our grade 8 NAEP reading proficiency had only increased to 36 percent. The six point improvement took 13 years, so our average annual rate of improvement is only 0.46 point per year. If we again would like to hit at least 80 percent proficiency, it will take us just shy of a full century, A FULL CENTURY, at our historic rate of progress to get there.

If we were to consider the confidence intervals, the estimates above would also have plus and minus values. Depending upon where the true proficiency rates lie, we could take somewhat less time to get to that 80 percent minimum goal, or we might need even longer than the times I developed above. Regardless, it’s going to take too long.

Given that we still have that very long way to go to get to something reasonable for proficiency rates in reading and math, and given that today we only have something on the order of one out of three students performing where we want our vast majority of students to perform, how can anyone intelligently talk about “all that progress?”

Bluntly put, the history for Kentucky from the NAEP shows there hasn’t been much progress, and it is coming far too slowly.