Since shortly after KERA got going back in 1990, our educators and some state leaders have been bombarding us with claims about all the education progress we have made. It happened again this past week during the governor’s TEK Task Force regional conferences.
What, exactly, does Kentucky’s progress look like?
Given past trends, how long will it take us to get a reasonable proportion of Kentucky’s students to academic performance levels they will need to compete in the 21st Century?
To explore those questions, I assembled this graph (click on it to enlarge), which shows Kentucky proficiency rates on the most recently administered versions of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The graph shows the latest available data by grade, subject, and year. For comparison, the few State NAEP results that are available for early years of KERA in 1992 are shown as dashed red lines on the appropriate bars.
As you look at these low proficiency rates and the huge gaps still remaining to reach the sorts of proficiency rates we need, the reason why I question claims about Kentucky’s ‘great’ progress becomes obvious.
After almost two decades of KERA, Kentucky’s most recent 2009 results for math and reading show that less than one in three Kentucky eighth grade students are proficient. Even if we had started from zero proficiency at the beginning of KERA (where data is available for 1992, it is obvious we didn’t start at zero), the story captured in this graph makes it evident that, absent major changes to our education system, Kentucky will require many decades to get to the sorts of proficiency rates our kids need.
If you want to learn more about this graph and its implications, click the “Read more” link below.
Only a few subjects are covered by the State NAEP assessments, and some of the available information is quite dated. For example,
• The most recently reported NAEP Science Assessment scores are half a decade old.
• The Grade 4 NAEP Writing Assessment was last given eight years ago and has only been given once to this grade level.
We’ll get new NAEP science results in the next couple of months, but the Grade 4 writing results may be over a decade old before they get an update, if then.
Furthermore, NAEP State-Level Scores extending back to the early days of KERA exist for only three test series:
• Grade 4 Math,
• Grade 4 Reading and
• Grade 8 Math.
The other assessments started well after KERA was enacted in 1990.
• Grade 8 Science wasn’t tested at the state level until 1996, and Grade 4 Science wasn’t tested until 2000.
• Grade 8 Writing wasn’t assessed at the state level until 1998.
• Grade 4 State Level Writing has only been assessed once, in 2002.
When Kentuckians hear claims of great progress on the NAEP since KERA began, they are rarely told that – for most grades and subject areas – supporting data simply does not exist.
That leaves us with the three areas where Kentucky does have long-term State NAEP trend lines: Grade 4 Math and Reading and Grade 8 Math.
Consider Grade 4 Math, where the state posted its best improvement, rising from 13 percent proficiency in 1992 to 37 percent proficiency in 2009. That was a gain of 24 points over 17 years, an average gain of 1.4 percentage points per year. How long, at that rate, will it take for 85 percent of Kentucky’s kids to score proficient in grade 4 math? The answer is 34 more years – more than three decades. Even after almost two decades of KERA, the state isn’t even half way to a really good target.
Now, consider grade 8 math. First, note that the gains in grade 4 so far have not been matched in grade 8. Back in 1992, our eighth grade students actually slightly outperformed the fourth graders, but no more. Today, scarcely more than one out of four eighth grade students is proficient in math. The increase in proficiency rate from 14 to 27 percent works out to an annual rate of improvement of just 0.76 of a percentage point per year. At this rate, Kentucky won’t see an 85 percent proficiency rate in math for nearly eight more decades – almost 80 years!
Finally, we hear a lot about how great Kentucky has done with fourth grade reading. The truth is we started in the early days of KERA with 23 percent already reading proficiently. That only improved to a 36 percent rate by 2009. We only increased proficiency in reading by 13 points in 17 years. The rate of improvement is only .76 of a percentage point each year. If we continue at that very slow rate, we’ll need over six decades to reach an 85 percent proficiency rate.
The fourth grade reading situation looks even worse when we consider the impacts of exclusion of students with learning disabilities from the NAEP.
Back in 1992, only four percent of the entire raw sample the NAEP wanted to test was ultimately excluded due to learning disabilities. In 2009, however, seven percent of the entire Kentucky raw sample was excluded as too learning disabled to sit for a fourth grade reading test. That increase in exclusion occurred even though, unlike in 1992, the 2009 NAEP allowed a number of testing accommodations for the learning disabled students who did take the assessment.
That exclusion rate increase from four to seven percent of the entire raw sample indicates that Kentucky’s 2009 NAEP proficiency rate is somewhat inflated when compared to the rate back in 1992, perhaps by at least two or three percentage points. Had the NAEP playing field stayed even, Kentucky’s 2009 proficiency rate would likely only be around 10 points higher than in 1992.
Throw all the fourth grade reading numbers together and it actually might take us almost nine decades more to reach that illusive 85 percent proficiency rate for fourth grade reading.
Why did I select an 85 percent proficiency target? The answer is that Kentucky’s learning disabled population currently runs about 15 percent or so of our total enrollment. I selected this target to avoid certain-to-be-raised wailings from the ‘KERA Amen Chorus’ (an old Paducah Sun term) about expecting too much from that special group of students.
However, the truth is that the group known collectively as learning disabled students includes many kids who are considered capable of much better work, provided they are taught appropriately.
So, my 85 percent target is actually very conservative. Kentucky probably needs to shoot for something higher still if we want all who should be capable of it to prosper in a living wage job in the new economy.
To close, Kentucky made a small amount of progress since KERA’s enactment, but the remaining education task is daunting. Looking backward, our educators make too much of the small progress accomplished. Looking forward, it is clear that our journey so far has covered only a short part of the total distance. When you measure progress to date against the full NAEP proficiency rate scale from zero to 100 (or to 85), it becomes clear that Kentucky’s accomplishments to date are no more than modest, at best.
Furthermore, doing more of what we have been doing isn’t likely to get us where we need to go in anything like the amount of time we have left before the Chinese, Indians, Japanese, and other rapidly advancing countries overwhelm our kids. Kentucky needs to do this a lot better – and a lot quicker – than our current education program seems capable of doing.
Technical Note: The NAEP data was assembled from a number of different sources including NAEP Report Cards and the Main NAEP Data Explorer. The NAEP Report Cards are available from the NAEP Web Site here.
The Main NAEP Data Explorer can be entered by clicking here.