By Jim Waters
Grand Canyon-esque gaps in math scores. Praise for poorly performing schools. Failed top-down policies.
So far, the developing story being told by the initial batch of results from Kentucky’s new testing system suggests that our public education system’s performance is – when compared to previous testing results – more of a déjà-vu-all-over-again narrative than a success in adequately preparing students for the future.
However, the jury is still out on how much, if any, improvement the new Kentucky Performance Rating for Educational Progress (K-PREP) will offer beyond previous testing systems in providing an accurate picture of – and thus steps to improve – our schools’ performance.
Plenty of anxieties remain concerning:
- Learning gaps
Statewide, K-PREP elementary and middle school reading proficiency rate gaps between white and black students and whites and Hispanics are larger than in the previous testing system.
An even unhappier picture emerges when individual schools are graded.
Education analyst Richard Innes reports the new K-PREP math scores reveal enormous proficiency rate gaps of at least 30 points between whites and blacks in 21 out of 88 Jefferson County public elementary schools with adequate data.
The new numbers reveal that taxpayers, who will shell out $8.4 billion during the current General Fund budget for public schools, were duped by previous rosy claims from CATS – K-PREP’s predecessor – which inflated scores and lowered the bar even as the competition for good jobs grows more global and fiercer from better educated students in China and India.
That’s the biggest gap of all – where our education system is, and where our students need to be when they search for employment.
That $8.4 billion is a massive price tag for such large learning gaps.
- Huge grading curves
Displeasure with our public school system should turn to outrage once the public learns that after going through all of the rigmarole of a new testing system, evidence surfaced that Kentucky’s K-PREP seems to be playing an updated version of “calling evil good.”
In this case, it’s calling “failure distinguished.”
For instance, two Jefferson County schools – Norton and Brandeis Elementary – had math proficiency rate gaps of more than 50 points between whites and blacks, yet each is being recognized as a “School of Distinction.”
Officials claim these schools outperform 95 percent of all Kentucky elementary schools and will face no consequences for leaving their black students so far behind.
“No way do they deserve to duck consequences – especially considering their performance related to minority students,” Innes said.
- Failing to protect vulnerable students
While the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind was yet another on the heap of failed big-government education programs, it did sift through the mire of scores to provide some accountability for the performance of minorities and students with learning disabilities – groups previously ignored.
However, Innes notes that the K-PREP results – released with little consideration for making them more understandable for the experts (much less parents) to decipher – lump minorities and students with learning disabilities into one overall calculation.
As a result, groups once protected from being passed over by NCLB accountability again remain in danger of being left behind.
- No charter schools
By approving Initiative 1240 on Election Day, Washington voters made theirs the 42nd state to approve charter schools. Kentucky should become No. 43, especially in light of the continuing learning gaps exposed by K-PREP and the fact that charter schools offer hope for those very students most likely to get left behind in traditional public schools.
On top of denying parents the option of choosing a public charter school for their children, now the commonwealth must also endure yet another testing system optimistically labeled “Unbridled Learning.”
Jim Waters is acting president of the Bluegrass Institute, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read previously published columns at www.freedomkentucky.org/bluegrassbeacon.