Bold new evidence: Kentucky does not lead the nation for education improvement

Claim especially misleading for state’s black students

Truth supports need for charter schools in Kentucky

As arguments swirled the past few months over charter schools, Kentuckians have been hearing claims that their state already leads the nation for the most educational improvement since passage of the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990 (KERA). As a consequence, that argument goes, this means Kentucky doesn’t need charters.

The latest example of this “leads the nation” claim is found in a March 10, 2017 Herald-Leader Op-Ed by David Hornbeck, one of the major architects of KERA. Hornbeck asserts:

“Kentucky children have made more progress than any other state in the nation.”

It’s a bold statement, but is it true?

And, is it true for all Kentucky’s children?

To explore these questions, we fired up the National Assessment of Educational Progress’ Main NAEP Data Explorer web tool. We used data from the NAEP Data Explorer to assemble the two tables below, which show how Kentucky’s eighth-grade blacks stack up against other states that also had scores for these children of color reported for both the earliest and latest years of NAEP state testing.

Table 1 shows the NAEP Grade 8 math results black students in the listed states received back in 1990, the year KERA was enacted, and 2015 scores – the latest available. The table is sorted by the change in the NAEP Scale Score for math in each state across the 1990 to 2015 period.

Table 1

Grade 8 Math Improvement for Blacks for 1990 and 2015 Ranked

As you can see, Hornbeck’s assertion isn’t just wrong, it’s very wrong when we talk about improvements for Kentucky’s largest racial minority group compared to other states with usable NAEP data for black students.

Kentucky lands nearly at the bottom of the stack when we rank each state’s increase in NAEP Grade 8 Math Scale Scores for black students over time. Only four of the 28 states with data available progressed even less than Kentucky.

If we only consider southern states listed in Table 1, we find that North Carolina, Florida, Louisiana, Georgia and Arkansas all matched or exceeded the national average increase in black students’ math scores between 1990 and 2015. Kentucky never came close to any of them.

By the way, all of those five Southern states have charter schools. At present, aside from Kentucky, only Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and West Virginia don’t have charters. Thus, except for West Virginia, all the states listed above Kentucky in Table 1 have charter school laws. That is something to think about.

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Digital learning: Not always pleasing parents

Before getting into this, I want to stress that I believe digital learning has strong potential to improve K to 12 education. I base that opinion on my own experience when I was an Air Force instructor pilot and an instructional technology program developer for the first generation of automated teaching machines to go operational in the Air Force pilot training program. Good equipment, properly used by well-trained staff, and – perhaps most importantly – loaded with good instructional programs, can enhance learning.

With that said, I also believe that just loading up a school with lots of digital equipment and then rapidly grabbing ahold of a digital learning program can prove problematic.

A case in point seems to be surfacing now in the Boone County Public School District in Kentucky.

In “Facebook program at school causes controversy,” the Kentucky Enquirer points to a growing controversy in the Boone County system over a digital learning program called Summit Learning, which was originally developed in California. Summit is being supported online by Facebook.

For sure, Summit, at least in its Boone County incarnation, is controversial. The Enquirer says the squabble is “so fierce that at least two families have yanked their children from Boone County Schools and other parents are accusing the district of treating students like guinea pigs.”

The Enquirer continues, “There are questions about how classrooms should be structured, how students should be graded and how much homework they should get. And there are questions about privacy – who collects what data and how it is used.”

There have also been questions about implementation. For example, Summit is supposed to be a “Blended Learning” approach where students spend part of the day on computers but are also supposed to still get classical teacher led instruction, as well. However, determining exactly what the computer-to-classical-approach mix should be is a challenge even in well-ordered systems.

In my Air Force days there was still a large amount of instructor-to-student interaction after our instructional technology came along. Having observed some Summit classroom activity, my initial impression is that the Boone County model is more heavily weighted towards computer time. I don’t know if the Boone mix is right or not; I am not sure at this point that anyone else really knows, either.

Without question, parents have been speaking out about their concerns with Summit. Long before the new Enquirer article came out, it was public knowledge that parents were upset.

For example, parents took considerable time to criticize the Summit program – on the record – at the November 10, 2016 meeting of the Boone County Board of Education. Parent Jeremy Storm said his child was supposed to have teacher interaction, but it seemed like the child was only working with teachers about 10 minutes a week, at best. Myrna Eads echoed this 10-minute teacher contact comment concerning her child. She also said that, as of this November school board meeting, some students had already finished the entire year’s program with Summit and were now just playing video games.

Jeremy Storm also said teachers were not really aware of what was in the Summit program because the adoption wasn’t taken slowly. Stacie Storm, his wife, added to the concerns saying her school’s School Based Decision Making Council didn’t handle the Summit adoption correctly and said Summit is not fully aligned to the Kentucky Core Academic Standards. Other parents were upset that no alternative to Summit was offered in some Boone County middle schools. That could be problematic for students who need more direct teacher contact.

Permission Slip Controversy

The Enquire article echoes comments I’ve heard about controversy over a permission slip parents are required to sign before their students can participate in the Summit Learning program. The Enquirer talked to parents and writes, “They said the permission slip for Summit was buried in a mountain of back-to-school paperwork, which was sent home with a threat: sign and return these, or your kid gets detention.” There was no opt-out option available on this permission form.

Parent coercion is just not acceptable.

Furthermore, there are concerns about sharing of private student data with Facebook/Summit, which may or may not prove to be a major problem.

I think more answers on Summit are coming. I am advised that complaints have been raised with the Kentucky Office of Education Accountability (OEA), which is the responsible agency to investigate claims regarding SBDM activities and some of the other issues parents have raised. The OEA is usually detailed and thorough in its investigations, so I don’t know how soon their findings will be made public.

However, multiple sources confirm that several parents were so upset that they have pulled their children completely out of the Boone County system. That, by itself, is a major attention grabber.

Kentucky’s Real Progress on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)

On Friday, March 3, 2016 the Kentucky House made history when it voted for the first time in favor of a charter school bill and sent it on for Kentucky Senate approval.

The vote was contentious.

Debates in the morning meeting of the House Education Committee and during the eventual deliberation and adoption of the bill by the full Kentucky House sometimes were bitter – even tear filled. And, there were lots of inaccurate statements along the way.

One entirely too prevalent assertion mentioned by many legislators was that Kentucky has made great education progress since passage of the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990 (KERA). Sadly, while the state’s public education system has made some progress in the past quarter of a century, it’s a real stretch to say “great” progress has been made. Let’s examine why inflated claims of great progress are out of order.

Figure 1 shows the NAEP Grades 4 and 8 reading and math proficiency rates for all Kentucky students from the earliest available year of testing and the most recent, 2015 results. There obviously has been progress, more in Grade 4 than Grade 8, but calling this a “great” accomplishment just isn’t right.

For example, only 40 percent of Kentucky’s fourth graders tested at or above NAEP’s Proficient level in 2015 in both fourth grade math and reading. That means that after a quarter of a century of KERA, 60 percent of our fourth graders – well over half – still don’t meet muster in either subject. After a quarter of a century, with so far yet to go, does it seem right to talk about “great progress?”

In the eighth grade NAEP, results were even worse. Only 36 percent of the state’s eighth graders scored at or above the NAEP Proficient level in reading. Far more disturbing, only a truly disappointing 28 percent of Kentucky’s eighth graders met muster in NAEP math. That means 72 percent of the state’s eighth grade students – as of 2015, a full quarter century after the launch of KERA – still don’t perform adequately in math.

Figure 1

Kentucky's NAEP Proficiency Rates on 4th and 8th Grade Reading and Math Assessments, Earliest Year Tested and 2015, All Students

Based on the known rates of progress that can be calculated using the data shown in Figure 1, the Bluegrass Institute projected the number of years following 2015 that remain before Kentucky can anticipate that at least 80 percent of its students will score proficient or above on the NAEP. You can see those projections in the table inserted in the upper right side of Figure 1. Those time estimates to reach 80 percent proficiency rates on the NAEP range from at least 34 more years required in Grade 4 math to an astonishing 126 more years for Grade 8 Reading.

With so much left to do, it is obviously inappropriate to crow about already making “great” progress. A large amount of progress simply hasn’t happened.

By the way, the situation looks MUCH worse when we examine the NAEP performance of Kentucky’s black students. Claiming “great progress” once this actual data is examined is simply unacceptable.

As Figure 2 shows, even as 2015, the NAEP reports only depressingly low percentages of Kentucky’s black students scored proficient or above in both Grade 4 and Grade 8 reading and mathematics.

Figure 2

Kentucky's NAEP Proficiency Rates on 4th and 8th Grade Reading and Math Assessments, Earliest Year Tested and 2015, Black Students Only

In two cases shown in the table insert in Figure 2, the trends on NAEP tell us Kentucky is nearly a century away from seeing a desirable math proficiency rate for its black students. In eighth grade math, the goal is the better part of two centuries away. In the case of Grade 8 Reading, the 80 percent proficiency rate goal is more than 2-1/2 centuries away!

This is simply unacceptable.

Clearly, Kentucky’s actual NAEP performance renders claims of great progress to be greatly exaggerated.

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Kentucky House approves charter school bill

It’s now officially recorded. The Kentucky House has approved the state’s first charter school bill by a vote of 56 to 39.

Vote Tally on HB 520 During Vote Explanation

Kentucky schools, where an “A” might not really be an “A”

I wrote a few days ago about new research from the Kentucky Department of Education that compares average mathematics letter grades to performance on Kentucky’s math assessments.

That initial blog discusses the fact that Kentucky’s children of color are generally getting higher letter grades for math than white students receive for similar test score performance.

Today, I expand on that with another graph from the recently released “The State of P-12 Education in the Commonwealth of Kentucky.” This new graph compares the overall average math grades for all high school students to the probability the students are really ready for college math. The test measure is the ACT college entrance test, and the ACT readiness score has been set by the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education (CPE) as a rather undemanding low of 19.

The Kentucky Department of Education says the figures used to generate the graph are for average performances across 2012 to 2016 data.

High School Grades Vs CPE ACT Benchmarks for All Students

There are some disturbing things in this graph.

The far right side of the graph provides evidence that even consistently scoring an “A” in Kentucky public high school math courses provides no guarantee of real math readiness. Less than 75 percent of the students who averaged an “A” in their high school math courses were also able to pass muster against the undemanding ACT target set by the CPE.

Things get more bothersome quickly as we move down the grade scale. Even for those students averaging a “B” in math, the picture is pretty grim. Fewer than one in two of those students are likely to meet the low requirement set by the CPE. For students with still lower math grades, the odds of surviving college math look pretty gruesome.

By the way, while the CPE says an ACT math score of 19 is good enough to avoid remedial coursework in college, the ACT says that a notably higher math score of 22 is actually needed to have at least a 75 percent chance of getting at least a “C” in the lower-level college math course of algebra.

In Kentucky’s public postsecondary system, a grade point average below 2.0 (generally a “C” average) will not allow graduation.

We often hear that high school grade point averages are better predictors of college performance than other factors like ACT scores. That correlation might have been true in the past, but when grading in Kentucky’s public school system today seems in too many cases to vary widely from real performances needed to succeed, this old rule of thumb might not be true anymore.

In any event, parents beware. Just because your kid gets an “A,” don’t think you are home free. There are plenty of stories of “A” students arriving on campus only to discover that they are not ready for college level math. Sometimes, that shock is more than our kids today can handle. And, based on this new research from the Kentucky Department of Education, it looks like there is plenty of room for even “A” students to get some very unpleasant surprises upon college entry.

KY State of Education shows serious grading discrepancies by race

Kentucky Commissioner of Education Stephen Pruitt delivered his second annual “The State of P-12 Public Education in the Commonwealth of Kentucky” report today, making extensive and very candid comments about the serious achievement gap situation in the state.

I’ll be spending some time in this report, but I think many at the press conference were particularly struck by results of a new analysis of course grade awards versus performance on Kentucky’s various mathematics assessments. So, I am going to delve into that new research now.

To put it mildly, this new research was a major eye-opener. Aside from showing some very disturbing trends regarding differential course grading by race, the data undermines a long-held notion that course grades are likely to be the best predictor of college performance.

Let’s look at two of the eye-watering graphs in the new report.

Figure 1

Grade 8 Course Grades Vs. KPREP by Race

The graph in Figure 1 is based on a study of Grade 8 math course letter grades and KPREP math scores from 2012 to 2016, and is found on Page 6 in the report. It shows some pretty disappointing things are happening in Kentucky’s public school system.

Looking vertically up from the “A” grade point on the right side of the horizontal axis, we see an example of why the report says:

“For African American students whose average letter grade in their middle school math courses was an A, the chance of scoring proficient on state math tests was 25 percentage points lower than that of white students who also earned an A average.”

Clearly, less is being demanded of Kentucky’s blacks to earn an “A” grade in math class. Across Kentucky, teachers are setting a lower standard for these children of color to earn an “A.” Examination of the graph for other letter grades shows blacks are held to lower standards for every other grade from “B” even down to a “D” score, though the amount of performance difference for whites versus blacks does decline a bit as we move down the grading scale.

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Jefferson County Schools in Serious Trouble

Education Commissioner orders full audit of system – State takeover could result

“I have determined that there is a presence of critically ineffective or inefficient management in the JCPS and accordingly, a comprehensive management audit of the governance and administration of JCPS is required pursuant to KRS 158.785 (2) and 703 KAR 3:205.”

Commissioner Stephen Pruitt in letter to Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) superintendent Donna Hargens advising the Kentucky Department of Education is launching a full Management Audit of that school district.

Pruitt’s letter lists 32 major and minor findings that collectively rise to the level of a serious deficiency.

Read more about this dramatic development in WDRB’s article, which contains a copy of the letter.

It’s no wonder Jefferson County residents are screaming for school choice.

Does all that busing in Jefferson County schools work?

Last week Governor Bevin touched on one of the Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) self-inflicted education problems when he discussed the excessive and hugely expensive school busing situation in the school district, saying:

“Are we really helping these children by taking them from one community, putting them on a bus … to another community where arguably they should be getting a better education but frankly they may or may not be?”

It’s a fair question, one people in Louisville seem unwilling to really explore. So, let’s do that for them here.

In February 2016 the Bluegrass Institute released a new edition in our Blacks Falling Through Gaps series on JCPS. In “Blacks Continue Falling Through Gaps in Louisville’s Schools, The 2016 Update,” we found white minus black achievement gaps on eighth and tenth grade college readiness assessments were generally increasing. We also found dramatic evidence of very poor quality control over high school diploma awards and that blacks were far more likely than whites in JCPS to be socially promoted to a rather hollow diploma.

And, we found evidence that extreme busing in JCPS doesn’t reliably improve performance for black students.

Figure 1 below shows the location of the 19 JCPS elementary schools which posted very large KPREP math white minus black achievement gaps in 2015 of 30 percentage points or more.

It’s easy to see that these biggest gap schools predominantly are found in the upper scale areas of Jefferson County, generally located east of I-65.

Elementary School Map

This map doesn’t seem to tell a very satisfying story about the success of busing in JCPS. It appears that students can be bused way across town and still not get an improved education in supposedly upper scale schools.

But, in some cases the story actually is even more dramatic.

For example, the Dunn Elementary school ranks in first place for the largest elementary school white minus black math achievement gap in JCPS in 2015. That gap was an astonishingly high 50.5 percentage points!

Even more objectionable, Dunn Elementary’s black students actually had a much lower 2015 math proficiency rate (24.0%) than blacks achieved in much higher poverty and higher minority elementary schools in West End Louisville such as Kennedy (45.5%) and Carter (61.5%).

Note: Kennedy and Carter don’t have huge achievement gaps and therefore are not shown on the map.

Even the Portland Elementary School – a “Needs Improvement” school in 2015 with a long history of educational challenges – posted a much higher black math proficiency rate (39.3%) than Dunn’s in 2015.

Incredibly, if a black student were to live near Portland but went to Dunn instead, that student would ride a bus to a school that might, on average, offer less chance of academic success.

By the way, in the latest 2016 KPREP math testing, Dunn’s black student proficiency rate sank even more. While Dunn’s black math proficiency rate was only 24.0 percent in 2015, it plummeted to only 14.6 percent in 2016! The already really bad got much worse.

Dunn isn’t the only problem, either. The number three gap school in 2015, Hawthorne Elementary, had an even lower black proficiency rate than Dunn that year, with only 19.6 percent of its black students meeting the proficiency mark. Hawthorne’s black math proficiency slid even more to just 18.4 percent in 2016.

So, our gap map indicates that busing black kids to the east side of the school district provides no guarantees those students of color will actually do better there. Perhaps the many millions spent on bus operations and diesel fuel each year could be far more productively used if more kids attended their neighborhood school and the massive money saved was used to enhance the teaching corps and repair facilities, instead.

And, just maybe, a lot of discipline issues and traffic issues would go away, as well.

Irony in Jefferson County

Newspaper provides other evidence that governor’s hard comments were not off target

It’s a little ironic. Less than a week after residents in Jefferson County got up in arms when Governor Matt Bevin called the Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) an “unmitigated disaster,” the Courier-Journal is running a story about “JCPS never disciplined supervisors of teacher who created ‘atmosphere of despair.’”

Well Louisville, maybe the governor’s hard comments are not so off target after all. Even your own newspaper is citing remarks from others regarding management in JCPS that seem just about as strong.

Even local newspaper isn’t buying school board’s anti-charter stance

We just got an interesting “vote” for charter schools. It will come as a shock to the Elizabethtown Independent School Board.

Even the local newspaper’s editors in Elizabethtown are not buying their local school board’s bias against charter schools.

In “Time to charter a different course,” the News-Enterprise newspaper in Elizabethtown clearly says it’s time to start bringing school choice to at least some areas of Kentucky.

The newspaper’s editorial stands in sharp contrast to the opinion of the local school board. Jim Waters wrote several weeks ago about the publicly expressed hostility of the Elizabethtown Independent Board of Education to bringing any charter schools to Kentucky. The board’s formal vote against charter schools raised some eyebrows at the time.

Now, it looks like the E’Town board didn’t even convince its local newspaper.