Did Kentucky education make great gains in the 1990s?
It was my pleasure to be a part of the always interesting Kentucky Tonight show with Renee Shaw on December 16, 2019. There was a lot to discuss with the upcoming legislative session pending and a new, and controversially reconstituted, state board of education as part of the agenda.
One of the big points I got to make was regardless of anything else, we need to get Kentucky’s policy makers on line with what is happening in education in the state of Mississippi. In a huge shocker, which I have already blogged about here and here, that state surpassed Kentucky for both black and white student scores on the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in math and in reading. It is a major surprise for a state that used to be able to say “Thank goodness for Mississippi” because that was about the only state Kentucky’s education system pretty consistently outperformed.
But, while Mississippi was discussed at some length during the Kentucky Tonight show, I’ve already covered the situation pretty well, so let’s look at a comment about something else. This was made by the Prichard Committee’s Brigit Ramsey, who shared the stage last night.
Around 28 minutes into the broadcast, Ms. Ramsey indicated that Kentucky’s education system had made great progress back during the 1990s. Really?
To explore this, I looked at the NAEP trend lines for Kentucky’s white and black students during the 1990s. Exactly what progress (if any) was made for Grade 4 and Grade 8 math and Grade 4 reading (the only NAEP results that stretch back to the early 1990s)? Click the “Read more” link to find out.
Figure 1 shows the story for Grade 4 math. Between 1992 and 2000, Kentucky’s white student NAEP math proficiency rate only increased from 13% to 19%. That little, 6-point rise was statistically significant, meaning the increase was more than can be explained by the statistical sampling error in the NAEP. But, if you think winding up with only 19% of our students proficient in Grade 4 math after a decade of the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990 (KERA) had been in place, you impress awfully easily.
For Kentucky’s black students, KERA was a huge dud where NAEP Grade 4 math was concerned. Between 1992 and 2000, the black scores actually dropped a point from 3% proficiency down to just 2%. That change wasn’t big enough to be statistically significant, but who cares when the state’s failure for its black fourth graders was so obvious.
For Grade 8 NAEP math, we have data from 1990 to 2000, as shown in Figure 2. White scores rose from 11% proficient to 22% proficient. That change was statistically significant, but with an end proficiency rate of only 22% for ten years of effort, I don’t see much to crow about.
For black Kentucky students, Grade 8 NAEP math was another disaster. The 1990 proficiency rate of 2% scarcely nudged up to 6%, but that small change wasn’t statistically significantly different from the 1990 rate. All we can say is that black performance was essentially flat for the entire decade. Anyway, I am surprised anyone would crow about an end proficiency rate of just 6% for these students of color.
The last NAEP data available from the 1990s is for Grade 4 reading. Figure 3 shows that story. In 1992 Kentucky’s white students tested just 24% proficient in this key subject. In 1998 they were 31% proficient and they tested just 32% proficient in the next NAEP reading assessment, which wasn’t until 2002. The 1998 and 2002 Kentucky white reading scores for Grade 4 NAEP are statistically significantly different from the 1992 score.
However, consider this: by the time our students reach the fourth grade, they are expected to be able to read to learn. If students don’t read well, they will have trouble in all subject areas from the fourth grade on. So, the NAEP tells us that even as of 2002, less than one in three Kentucky white students was reading well enough to do challenging work.
Even worse, about 32% of our fourth graders scored below what the NAEP calls a “Basic” level of reading in 2002. Basic only signifies partial mastery of reading while below Basic is even worse performance. So, about a third of our white student body was in REALLY BIG trouble in 2002.
You probably already guessed how NAEP Grade 4 reading worked out for Kentucky’s black students in the 1990s. Kentucky’s black students scored just 8% proficient in NAEP Grade 4 reading in 1992, reached just 11% proficient in 1998 and only made 13% proficient in 2002. None of those later year results were statistically significantly different from that 1992 rate of 8%. Worse, 60% of the state’s black students scored below Basic as of 2002. So, well over half of the state’s black students were more or less educationally doomed even as of 2002. They would face almost certain trouble in all academic areas as they never the less were socially promoted to higher grades.
By the way, I should also mention that during the 1990’s Kentucky’s exclusion rate for students with disabilities became one of the highest for any state in NAEP reading. Only 4% of the entire raw sample of students the NAEP wanted to test in 1992 got excluded due to learning disabilities but this more than doubled by 1998 and even as of 2002 remained at 7% of the entire raw sample. Thus the majority of the state’s learning disabled students were not even being allowed to test. When you exclude students who, as a group, will certainly score low, test scores become inflated. So, the state’s true reading proficiency rates are probably even lower than those shown in Figure 3 (Exclusion rate information is found in several tables in one of the Excel spreadsheets issued with the 2019 NAEP results).
So, you now know why I cringe when people try to talk about all the supposed progress Kentucky made in the early years of KERA. The reality is, that just isn’t so.
One more point: Ms. Ramsey admitted on the show that even progress made in the 1990s wasn’t sustained more recently. She is right about that.
In general, Kentucky’s white student performance on the NAEP went flat starting around 2007 or 2009 across the board. I think we’ll look at that disturbing situation next, so stay tuned.
Tech Note: Data to create Figures 1, 2 and 3 came from the NAEP Data Explorer.