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.

[Read more…]

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.

[Read more…]

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.

Mississippi fires testing contractor who made serious mistakes

Kentucky uses same contractor

AP reports that Mississippi has fired NCS Pearson after that testing company made serious grading errors on high school tests that have impacted graduation for as many as 1,000 students.

Some students who actually performed poorly on a high school history test erroneously got high scores while other students who actually did well got inaccurately low scores that might have prevented high school graduation.

The AP article points out that this isn’t the first time Pearson made mistakes on high school exam grading that adversely impacted students. The company also had to pay for a failure of its online testing system in 2015, as well. Pearson reimbursed Mississippi $250,000 for that computer glitch.

Pearson is the prime contractor for Kentucky’s KPREP tests in Grades 3 to 8. So far, problems such as those in Mississippi have not been reported during Kentucky testing.

Former Kentucky National Guard Commander: ‘Lack of educational success national security issue’

ASVAB Ineligibility Rates for Whites from EdTrust
Former Kentucky National Guard Commander Major General Allen Youngman (Retired) just posted a disturbing letter in the Bowling Green Daily News, claiming the serious under-education of our nation’s students poses a real problem for the nation’s continued security.

Youngman cites some disturbing statistics to back up his concerns, claiming:

“An astounding 73 percent of young Kentuckians are ineligible for military service.”

That does not just include those who cannot qualify for the more demanding technical jobs in today’s military. This includes those ineligible for what Youngman says are “even the most basic military jobs.”

The general points out that right off the top, 12 percent of Kentucky’s students don’t graduate from our public high schools, which essentially eliminates their chance for success. So, out of every entering 100 ninth grade students, 12 don’t even begin to qualify for our military.

Among the remainder of those entering ninth grade students who do get a Kentucky high school diploma, he says 23 percent cannot get sufficiently high scores on the qualification tests to even be considered more closely for admission. That’s another 20 students knocked out right away for academically related reasons.

So, right away, 32 percent of Kentucky’s students are knocked out of the running for military enlistment directly due to education-related deficiencies.

The general doesn’t detail why the rest of the 73 percent of Kentucky’s young adults can’t qualify for military service, but similar total numbers have been discussed elsewhere. Aside from the academically disqualifying problems, obesity, drug issues (including medication for ADHD) and physical disfigurement apparently play a role. While many factors play into these other problems, it would appear that schools were not successful in educating students about the dangers of some of these militarily disqualifying activities.

By the way, in 2010 the Education Trust did an analysis of the percentage of students ineligible for the military based on Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) scores. The table on the right, extracted from information in Appendix A of the EdTrust report, shows how Kentucky’s white military applicants (who made up 84% of all Kentucky applicants) stacked up against their counterparts in other states for military readiness. As you can see, our white kids didn’t fare well, which is particularly disappointing because Kentucky traditionally has sent many excellent citizens into the armed forces.

Clearly, Kentucky has a problem.

Will Kentucky’s education system be standards driven or test driven?

When the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Mathematics (CCSS) and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) came to the Bluegrass State, Kentuckians were told their state’s education system would be built around those standards.

Well, perhaps not.

There was a presentation about the pending revision to the state’s science assessments during today’s meeting the Kentucky School Curriculum and Assessment Committee (SCAAC). The presenter was asked if all science areas would be covered in the assessments for elementary, middle and high schools. The answer, to my considerable surprise, was “Yes.”

Not certain I heard this correctly, I questioned the presenter during a break and confirmed that all science areas would be fair game in the new science assessments at all school levels. That included chemistry and physics for high schools.

The reason this surprised me, and the reason this is a problem, is because the generally vague NGSS essentially cut off completely after high school biology. Topics from high school chemistry and physics are basically absent even though some at the Kentucky Department of Education don’t seem to understand that.

Furthermore, a well-established legal principal known as “Notice or “Fair Notice” says you can’t give tests that have consequences if you don’t provide advance notice of what is fair game on the tests. The way you provide notice is with the state’s education standards. NGSS can’t give adequate notice for things it doesn’t include.

So, is Kentucky sailing into really troubled waters with its new science assessments? Unless some changes are made, I think so.

[Read more…]

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.

[Read more…]

Senate Bill 1: Reservations and recommendations

The media is exploding with coverage of the passage of Senate Bill 1 out of the Kentucky Senate. But the coverage, including some of the headlines, leaves important questions unanswered.

For example, the Herald-Leader reports: “Kentucky Senate approves repeal of Common Core standards in schools.” That might not be true.

SB 1 does vaguely state, “In adopting the amendments to KRS 158.6453 contained in Section 3 of this Act, the General Assembly intends, among other actions, to repeal the common core standards.” But there’s no clear and outright mandate for such a repeal.

The bill does require a new process to review all standards and make recommendations for changes as deemed necessary. However, there’s nothing in the bill that directly repeals Common Core.

There also is no guarantee that the standards-review teams established by the bill will recommend any substantial changes to the existing cut-and-paste adoptions of Common Core in Kentucky’s current public school standards. The review process might lead to materially changed standards, or it might not.

Explicit, outright repeal and replacement with other existing, high quality standards – such as being contemplated in West Virginia – is not a feature of SB-1.

Whatever is being said about SB 1, it’s clear from this segment of Scott Sloan’s talk show about Common Core-based math instruction on Cincinnati’s 700 WLW-AM, which aired Friday, Feb. 17, 2017, that the war over Common Core continues.

There are other features of SB 1 that warrant attention:


  • It mandates a multi-team, multi-tier standards-review process heavily populated by experienced Kentucky public school teachers with appropriate subject matter expertise. This is a good stipulation, one notoriously absent in Common Core, which was totally developed by non-Kentuckians in work groups populated with very few teachers.
  • On the other hand, the required presence of Kentucky postsecondary educators on the review teams seems rather thin, especially so for those with specific subject matter expertise. This review process in SB 1 departs from the general outlines for standards panels that were established by an older Senate Bill 1 from the 2009 Regular Legislative Session.

That older bill required extensive, high-level coordination between the Kentucky Department of Education and the Council on Postsecondary Education to formulate the state’s new standards. Fortunately, the rather thin presence of postsecondary expertise in this year’s SB 1 is easy to fix. Hopefully, the Kentucky House will add more postsecondary subject-matter expertise to the standards-review teams.

  • The House should enhance review-team participation by business and industry experts and possibly other groups, as well. At present, this is only vaguely defined in the bill.
  • The House also should clarify that as legislatively established committees, the standards teams must comply with the state’s open-meetings and open-records laws. The Common Core process was completely opaque and that could have hidden problems that might have been handled better in an open forum.

Concerning the host of other changes contained in SB 1, including significant revisions to the commonwealth’s assessment and accountability program, it will take more time to determine how well this bill addresses key policy provisions.

However, one thing is certain: while some are cheering the current SB 1 as perhaps the greatest piece of education legislation since the passage of the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990, history shows us it’s premature to make such judgements.

Similar joyous claims were made following the passage of the SB 1 from 2009, but history tells us that act suffered in actual implementation in many ways:


  • The standards-review teams never operated as the law intended. In fact, the law never sanctioned the entire process of adoption of out-of-state standards created in ways not subject to Kentucky’s open-meetings and open-records statutes. This is undoubtedly why the new SB 1 requires a review of the processes actually used to create the new standards by a legislatively appointed team. Clearly, legislators have no intention of being blindsided by another non-transparent Common-Core-like series of events.
  • The standards as well as the assessment and accountability process implemented following SB 1 in 2009 proved disappointing. Thus, the entire process is now undergoing changes, which will be directed in part by the SB 1 passed by the Kentucky Senate on Friday.

While we’re hopeful extra eyes in the Kentucky House will make this bill stronger, it’s way too early to pat ourselves on the back. After all, Kentucky is currently witnessing the demise of its third assessment and accountability program to come down the pike since KERA’s passage in 1990.

Based on the commonwealth’s education history to date, we clearly need to stay eyes open and alert as Kentucky prepares to launch its fourth attempt to get education right.

The time for cheering is several years down the road, at least.