New ACT results show Common Core not meeting promises to many Kentucky’s students

New reports came out last week on the performance of 2017’s high school graduates across the country on the ACT college entrance test. A lot of folks are especially interested in the results for Kentucky because Common Core has been in place in the Bluegrass State longer than anywhere else. Thus, Kentucky has the longest trend line of relevant ACT scores in the country regarding how well Common Core has kept a major, frequently-heard promise (see for example here, here and here) that these standards would improve preparation for college. After all, if we are talking about college readiness, what more pertinent trend lines could there be? The ACT is designed to serve colleges first (not state educators) and the ACT explicitly reports about college readiness.

So, how do Kentucky’s ACT college readiness trends look?

To begin, keep in mind that Kentucky adopted Common Core – sight unseen – in February of 2010. Shortly thereafter, the state implemented Common Core-aligned testing in the 2011-12 school term. Thus, Common Core has been the classroom standard in Kentucky for more than half a decade. The state’s 2017 public high school graduates spent at least six years in classrooms impacted by the Common Core.

Figure 1, derived from data in the 2015 Kentucky Department of Education News Release 15-091 and the department’s 2017 News Release 17-114 shows the percentages of Kentucky’s public school graduates meeting the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education’s (CPE) ACT Benchmark Scores for College Readiness in English, math and reading from 2013 to 2017. Students meting those CPE ACT Benchmark Scores are admitted to credit bearing courses in Kentucky’s public postsecondary system in the related subjects without a requirement to take remedial courses. In other words, those students are deemed ready for college in that subject area, at least according to Kentucky’s educators.

Figure 1

Percent of 2013 to 2017 KY Grads Meeting CPE's ACT Benchmarks

A quick visual examination of Figure 1 shows Kentucky’s students initially made some progress in college readiness based on the ACT in the early years of Common Core. However, the small gains in both English and math actually started decay after 2015. For both English and math, the 2017 CPE Benchmark performances are lower than in 2015 and both are scarcely better than they were in 2013.

Reading appears to have trended somewhat better, but a careful inspection of the graph shows that even in this subject the rate of progress has slowed in more recent years. So, even in reading performance increases have come only very slowly. Worse, even the reading curve is starting to flatten.

For sure, the percentages of students meeting the CPE’s College Readiness Benchmarks in 2017 are disappointingly low in all three areas. When scarcely more than half of the state’s 2017 high school graduates read well enough to attempt college work without extra remedial training, the state obviously has a major problem that doesn’t seem to be improving much in the Common Core era.

When far fewer than one in two Kentucky high school graduates is ready for even the very lowest level credit bearing college math courses, the problem becomes much more severe.

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ACT scores are out – Kentucky’s public school gaps also are problem

As I wrote earlier today, new ACT reports for the high school graduating class of 2017 are now publicly released. There should be a lot of interest because this is the seventh year after Kentucky adopted the Common Core State Standards, which were supposed to dramatically improve college preparation.

Certainly, progress towards college readiness seems to have gone flat in Kentucky. Even the Kentucky Department of Education’s (KDE) News Release about the new ACT scores says:

“(Kentucky Commissioner of Education Steven) Pruitt said this year’s flat ACT scores reinforce that the timing is right for Kentucky to take a serious look at its graduation requirements and move forward with a new accountability system that is designed to promote and hold schools and districts accountable for student achievement and significantly reduce achievement gaps (Underline for emphasis added).”

My earlier post looked at the white minus black achievement gaps for all Kentucky 2017 high school graduates combined: public, private and home school. Because there are not a lot of non-public school graduates in Kentucky, those overall scores pretty closely, but not perfectly, mirror what is happening in the public schools.

Unfortunately, public school only ACT results don’t come directly from the ACT, Inc. Public school only data is only found in the KDE’s News Release and that release does not include nearly as much information as can be found in the ACT, Inc.’s materials.

Still, we can look at the public school only white minus black achievement gap for the ACT Composite Score, which is presented in Figure 1.

Figure 1

ACT Composite Gaps in Kentucky to 2017 Public School Only

For comparison, the graph of the ACT Composite Scores for all students is shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2

ACT Composite Gaps in Kentucky to 2017

As you can see, since ACT changed its reporting system in 2013 (more on that is in the first blog), the gaps are somewhat smaller when we only look at the public school results, but this is mostly because the whites in public schools score notably lower than the whites in Kentucky’s non-public schools.

For example, in 2017 Figure 1 shows that whites in the state’s public schools scored only 20.3 on the ACT Composite but Figure 2 shows the overall white average was higher at 20.7.

Thus, the score for the non-public whites had to be higher, probably several points higher, than 20.7.

Unfortunately, counts of white and black graduates are not listed in KDE’s News Release 17-114 (ACT’s report does list that information for the overall student group); so, I can’t accurately calculate the actual non-public white scores for you.

Also note that the scores for the black public school graduates are slightly lower than the state’s overall ACT Composite Scores for blacks. Thus, for example, the score for black non-public school graduates in 2017 has to be higher than the overall average score of 17.0 for blacks shown in Figure 2.

Do notice that whether we look at Figure 1 or Figure 2, the trend in the white minus black ACT Composite Score achievement gap is pretty much the same. In both cases, the gap in 2017 is no better than in 2014.

So, while I can’t show you any breakouts of public school only gaps for the specific ACT academic areas of English, math, reading and science, I am pretty confident that the all student results shown in my earlier blog give a pretty good idea about what is happening in Kentucky’s public schools.

Also, note that the public school white ACT Composite scores have flat lined for three years now. That is a real problem, too.

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ACT scores are out – Kentucky’s white minus black achievement gaps continue to be a problem

The new ACT reports for the high school graduating class of 2017 have been publicly released, and there will be a lot to talk about concerning these important college readiness test results in the seventh year after Kentucky adopted the Common Core State Standards, which were supposed to dramatically improve college preparation.

Certainly, progress towards college readiness seems to have gone flat in Kentucky. Even the Kentucky Department of Education’s News Release about the new ACT scores says:

“(Kentucky Commissioner of Education Steven) Pruitt said this year’s flat ACT scores reinforce that the timing is right for Kentucky to take a serious look at its graduation requirements and move forward with a new accountability system that is designed to promote and hold schools and districts accountable for student achievement and significantly reduce achievement gaps (Underline for emphasis added).”

The department’s News Release emphasizes that racial achievement gaps are currently a hot concern in Kentucky. So, let’s look at the trends in the white minus black ACT achievement gaps from 2013 to the present. I only look back to 2013 because ACT changed its reporting format in that year, including for the first time scores for students who got more than the standard time to complete this college entrance test. As a result, the current data isn’t strictly comparable to years prior to 2013. Still, this covers the major portion of time that Common Core was really impacting Kentucky’s classrooms, as the state began Common Core-aligned testing in reading, writing and mathematics just one year prior in the 2011-12 school term.

Figure 1 shows how the overall ACT Composite Score trends look for all of Kentucky’s whites and blacks for high school graduates from public, private and home schools in the years of 2013 through 2017.

Figure 1

ACT Composite Gaps in Kentucky to 2017

As you can see, scores for both white and black students slowly increased over the past five years, but the achievement gap in 2017 has been basically flat, no better than it was back in 2014 (I highlighted the 2014 gap for emphasis).

Essentially, the ACT Composite Score achievement gap for whites versus blacks in the Bluegrass State hasn’t changed appreciably in half a decade of Common Core impacts in Kentucky.

Also note that the white scores look like they indeed are going flat. If that had not happened, the black gap trend would look even worse. We don’t want gaps closing only because white scores are staying stagnant.

I have similar graphs for the individual subjects tested by ACT, as well (English, Math, Reading and Science). Click the “Read more” link to see those.

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Accountability puzzle

Over at the Prichard Blog, Susan Perkins Weston discusses some puzzling material that is part of the Kentucky Board of Education’s agenda package for its meeting tomorrow. This material is called the “Kentucky Accountability System, Long Term and Interim Goals for Public Reporting,” and it includes a series of tables like the one below that show projected, year-by-year score goals for different student groups in different school levels and subjects for the period from 2018-19 to 2029-30.

KY Long Term and Interim Goals Table for HS Math

Strangely, there is no explanation offered for these tables, and while they might seem straight-forward at first, as Ms. Weston points out, that simplicity fades away quickly once you examine the tables more closely. Then, as Weston points out, all sorts of issues arise.

Weston covers the problems nicely, but I’ll just add one key additional point. The tables start out with “Baseline” scores for 2018-19. The problem here, of course, is we have not even seen the test results from 2016-17 at this time. Where did the Kentucky Department of Education come up with those baseline scores for tests that are still two years away?

Also, given the strange way some of the numbers work, do these tables make any sense? As Weston points out for the table above, the Kentucky Department of Education says that it will be just fine if our high school math proficiency rate way out in 2029-30 is only 49.7 percent! Really?

There are plenty of other issues concerning the state’s new school accountability system that have yet to be resolved, which we and other groups have mentioned before.

I don’t really think anyone will know how the new system works until we get real data from the 2018-19 school year to examine, and that is, of course, still two years away. Meanwhile, while the state board certainly can vote to continue the progress, I don’t see how they will be able to adopt an enforceable regulation for the accountability system anytime soon.

Fair is fair

Even monkeys get it!

This message could pertain to the current effort to revise Kentucky’s school accountability system. You see, right now, there are draft proposals for different schools to have different elements in their accountability calculation. That won’t create a fair and uniform system.

For example, one of the proposed achievement gap calculations would use the highest reported scores from among all the racial groups in the school as the target for comparison to scores for other races (See Page 15 in the draft of regulation 703 KAR 5:270).

In some of Kentucky’s schools – perhaps 10 percent or so – that target group would be Asian students. In most Kentucky schools, white student scores would shape the target. That could create some dramatic differences in gap results.

For example, the extract below from the 2015-2016 Kentucky School Report Card for the North Laurel Middle School, where exactly 10 Asian students – the minimum number required to report scores – took math, shows the gaps can vary dramatically when this approach is used.

North Laurel Middle 2016 KPREP Math by Race

You see, North Laurel’s Asians scored 100% proficient or more, but the whites scored only 52.8 percent proficient. If just one fewer Asian student had attended the school, the target would be based on white student performance, a group with only 52.8 percent math proficiency. If the new system were used with an Asian enrollment of 10 students, North Laurel’s target racial group for gap scores would have nearly twice that proficiency rate – 100 percent – and the gaps would be enormous for whites, blacks, Hispanics, and any other races with reportable results.

That would create non-comparable results to most other schools, of course. Furthermore, the results could bounce around dramatically in a school like North Laurel Middle from year to year if subgroup enrollment moves above and below 10 students for the reference group or any other group.

Depending upon how the scoring works out for the new accountability system (right now, nobody knows how this will look, by the way), one school might get the grape, the other only cucumber even though both would look exactly the same if only one, uniform calculation was used to create both schools’ accountability scores.

Let’s not monkey around with non-uniform measures in our new accountability system. Let’s make that system uniform because Kentuckians want fair and equitable comparisons between schools. After all, even monkeys know it’s wrong when they get cucumber instead of grapes.

Grade inflation: We’re not the only ones seeing it

In “A’s on the rise in U.S. report cards, but SAT scores founder,” USA Today reporter Greg Toppo discusses how trends in high school grades and SAT scores show grading in the country is getting inflated.

This isn’t news to us, of course. In fact, we talked back in February about research from the Kentucky Department of Education that shows grading is even getting unevenly biased according to students’ race.

This is why efforts in some places to drop ACT or SAT as part of the college entrance process continue to make no sense to us.

Is there a backlash growing over Kentucky’s proposed school accountability system?

Unbridled Learning, Kentucky’s current public-school assessment and accountability system, is on the way out, and Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt and the Kentucky Department of Education have been working on an as-yet unnamed replacement accountability system for some time. Pruitt and his team have held two sets of public hearings seeking Kentuckians’ input into the new program and he formed several advisory committees to further develop ideas for the new system.

Now, a proposed system is starting to take form. The Kentucky Board of Education took its first formal look at the proposal in June, and a follow-up discussion is expected during the board’s August meeting.

Surprisingly, amid this movement toward finalizing Kentucky’s new accountability program – which, by law, must be submitted to Washington, DC for approval by mid-September – a curious letter appeared last week, co-signed by leaders of several organizations including the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce and the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, who were members of one of Pruitt’s key advisory committees.

It almost seems like the letter is, to use technical lingo, a minority dissenting report.

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Union chief’s example of public school innovation flunks

On July fourth the National Public Radio affiliate at Western Kentucky University published a highly ironic article, “Charter School Concerns Voiced by KEA President.” Hopefully, our students are learning better ways of providing supporting examples than the one Stephanie Winkler, the head of the Kentucky Education Association, stumbled over in her interview.

Trying to counter the pressing need for charter schools in Kentucky, the article says Winkler claims that “public schools have the ability to get creative and tackle difficult education issues.” Winkler then offered Jefferson County schools as an example.

How ridiculous!

Only very recently, Jefferson County Public Schools gave up on its “School of Innovation” project in the Maupin Elementary School. The dysfunction in this school, which was supposed to be a high model of reform, was so severe that it is now listed as a “Priority School.” The crash of innovation was so loud at Maupin that even its School Based Decision Making Council (SBDM) lost its governance authority. By the way, the SBDM undoubtedly was controlled by some of Winkler’s union members because, by law, teachers hold the controlling vote in every one of the state’s school councils.

Even the chair of the Jefferson County Board of Education admitted that poor district leadership was a key player in the Maupin fiasco.

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Education reform: Beware of experts

As Kentucky gets ready to launch yet another assessment and accountability system worked around yet another major education law from Washington, the Every Student Succeeds Act, we are hearing hearing once more about how “Research Shows” this or that education idea works.

But, we can’t help thinking – again – that there is a TON of research on education out there; however, a great deal of it doesn’t pass even minimal requirements for rigor.

Certainly, as we have discussed before, the generally dubious nature of education research is a message found in Arthur Levine’s very interesting reports about Educating School Teachers and, most especially, Educating Researchers. As a past president of Columbia Teachers College in New York, Levine has enjoyed a better vantage point than most to make such observations.

And, Levine isn’t alone with his concerns, either.

The American Enterprise Institute’s Rick Hess just provided his timely cautions about education experts in this short, 1-minute video. It’s worth a viewing.

What education accountability can (and cannot) do, Part II

Once again, Prof. Gary Houchens, a Bluegrass Institute Scholar and Kentucky Board of Education member as well as a professor at Western Kentucky University, has posted a great blog about the goals and limitations of education accountability.

I highly recommend reading Dr. Houchens’ blog.

By the way, at the risk of oversimplification, an education accountability program is somewhat like the speedometer in your car. Without question, a speedometer provides valuable information for the safe operation of the car, but your speedometer won’t make your car go faster or slower. It is only a performance instrument.

Still, it is dangerous to ignore a speedometer and consequences for doing so can be very high.

Thus, the idea that we would want to rip an accountability program out of the education machine is just about as dangerous as the idea of ripping out the speedometer in our vehicles. The key is that we want a speedometer with accurate calibration and easy to read indications. I think our education speedometer needs more work in the accuracy and readability area, but the notion that we could get along without such a performance gauge is not good for our kids.