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Kentucky’s education results: Claim doesn’t match facts

Editor’s Note: The Bluegrass Beacon is a weekly syndicated newspaper column posted on the Bluegrass Institute’s website after being published by newspapers statewide.

In “The Patriot,” set during the Revolutionary War, 18-year-old Gabriel Martin pushes for independence, trying to avoid assignment to the militia unit commanded by his father.

When his efforts fail, young Gabriel petulantly reminds his father: “I’m the best scout in the Continental Army, the best horseman, the best shot, the best scavenger.”

“Is that so?” his father replied.

“Yes, sir,” Gabriel sputters. “I could be of better service with the regulars.”

Then, Col. Martin turns to his ambitious son.

“Where’d you learn all those things, riding, shooting?”

“My father taught me.”

“He teach you humility?”

“He tried,” Gabriel replies. “It didn’t take.”

Numerous times I’ve tried to teach Kentucky’s public education establishment that its claims of noteworthy progress since passage of the much-ballyhooed Kentucky Education Reform Act in 1990 are wrong.

So far, it hasn’t taken; such claims continue.

Some humility might be needed to admit to the exaggerations and gaps between the embellished narrative spun by the establishment and the truth portrayed by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

A recent op-ed co-authored by Clay Ford, who chairs the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, and Brigitte Blom, the organization’s president and CEO, claims: “Kentucky has moved the needle on education outcomes – climbing from the bottom of the national rankings in the 1980s to roughly the middle now.”

Sounds sweet, doesn’t it?

The claim, however, sours when confronted by truth.

Nevertheless, the organization makes it incessantly, including in annual reports and when defending its record on its website.

Politicians rarely, if ever, question the climb-to-the-middle claims, and often mindlessly repeat them.

Properly analyzed, the NAEP, also known as the Nation’s Report Card, provides a different, far-more accurate picture:

·         Kentucky’s white fourth-grade students placed 41st for math and reading in the national rankings in 1992 among the 42 jurisdictions – 41 states and the District of Columbia – which reported scores. By 2019, the state only moved to 33rd in reading and only 39th in math among the same jurisdictions. Only one state scored statistically significantly lower than Kentucky in 2019 in both subject areas.

·         Between 1998, the first year NAEP offered state-level reading scores for eighth grade students, and 2019, Kentucky’s white eighth-graders’ results fell from No. 28 to 32nd among the 36 jurisdictions reporting scores both years. Whites in only two states scored statistically significantly lower than Kentucky’s white eighth-graders in 2019. In math, among the 41 jurisdictions with scores for white students for both years, Kentucky’s white eighth-graders dropped from 36th to 39th place between 1992 and 2019.

·         Kentucky’s Black fourth-graders’ performance fell on NAEP’s reading and math results from 13th place in 1992 to 23rd in 2019 in reading and from third place to No. 20 in math. Among the 33 jurisdictions reporting results for math, Kentucky’s Black fourth graders statistically significantly outscored 11 in 1992 but only five in 2019.

Such mediocrity cannot be stretched far enough to describe the academic performance of a state as having “moved the needle on education outcomes, climbing from the bottom of the national rankings” – when the much-ballyhooed Kentucky Education Reform Act was passed more than 30 years ago – “to roughly the middle now,” no matter how much we all wish it – and then some – were so.

Once you know the truth, the need for the aggressive reforms we’ve pushed for in this column, including educational choice for parents and changing the way schools are governed and how teachers teach reading, becomes dramatically evident.

Fictions about Kentucky’s educational progress shouldn’t “take” with anyone who cares about – and is humble enough to accept – the truth.

Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free market think tank. Reach him at and @bipps on Twitter.

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