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Kentucky Is Improving in Meeting Some Education Goals, Report Says. Here Are 5 Takeaways.

A challenge was issued in 2008 for Kentucky education leaders to accelerate academic improvement in a way that would allow the state to break into the top 20 in national rankings by 2020.And it seems to be happening—in some areas. That's according to a report released Wednesday that examines Kentucky's academic progress in various categories. “There is a lot to celebrate, but there is lots of work to be done at the same time,” said Stu Silberman, the executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, the group that issued the  2008 challenge and publishes the biennial "Top 20 by 2020" report.The 2014 edition is the third update to the "Top 20 by 2020" report since 2008, when the Prichard Committee began keeping track of how Kentucky students fare in selected educational categories compared to the 49 other states."The report confirms what we already know," state education commissioner Terry Holliday said in a statement.  "There is still much work to be done."Holliday said faster gains need to be made in "key content areas" like math and science, while also working to close achievement gaps so "all students have the skills and knowledge they need to succeed."Here are some key takeaways from the updated "Top 20 by 2020" report:Progress is being made.Of the 20 educational categories monitored by the Prichard Committee, six of those are on track to be ranked within the top 20 in the nation by 2020.  In fact, two already are.  Reading scores for 4th and 8th grade students are ranked 15th and 17th among all 50 states, according to data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Kentucky students are also continuing the trend of increased participation in Advanced Placement courses.  Since 2007, more high school students have been earning college credit through AP courses.  Kentucky is currently ranked 25th in this category, and Silberman said breaking into the top 20 by 2020 is well within reach.Scores in 4th grade math have made big gains in recent years, Silberman said.  The states ranking in the category has jumped from 41st in the initial report to the present rank of 28th.There are also struggles.The progress being made in the other 14 categories is considered to be too slow to crack the top 20 by 2020—or they fell downward in the rankings.  Some  aren’t making any progress, while some have not yet had new data come through that would indicate a change since the last report.For instance, data relating to the number of students who have earned bachelor's or associate's degrees has not been updated since 2009, so there is no change in those rankings, Silberman said.  But the number of students earning degrees in fields related to science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, has been updated—and the number is not good.Kentucky has a long way to go to meet goals for STEM degrees.Kentucky ranks 44th in the amount of STEM bachelor’s degrees earned. The ranking has not changed much in the past six years—it has never dropping lower than 43rd or higher than 45th, according to the report.  Silberman said the poor ranking can be attributed to a current population of college students that were not adequately prepared during their K-12 career.“School districts in Kentucky are beginning to address that issue,” he said.  “We’re having to step up our efforts at the K-12 level to get kids prepared for those fields.”He said districts like Fayette County—which recently implemented an academy focused on preparing students for careers in science, technology, engineering, art and math fields—take the lead on crafting the the STEM issue.  He said more initiatives like this need to be adopted by other districts to give students the basic skills they need to be able to pursue degrees or careers in STEM fields.“When you start thinking about the STEM fields,” he said.  “They all take upper level skills to be able to be successful. Those skills are all built on previous knowledge.”Poor funding for higher education is an issue.Silberman said inadequate state revenues put a burden on students and families who want to attend college.  When state-funded universities and colleges are faced with budget cuts, they are forced to raise tuition rates, Silberman said.“We’re really encouraging more and more kids to go to college and technical schools, but then we price them out of the market,” he added.Kentucky ranks 22nd in families that share the cost of higher education and 26th in per-pupil total higher education funding, according to the report.“We need to be looking at new ways to bring revenue into this state,” Silberman said.Silberman said the negative impacts of the rising cost of a college education is reflected in the 39th place ranking of adults ages 25 to 34 with a bachelor’s degree or higher.But that ranking can’t be completely chalked up to high tuition costs, Silberman added.The percentage of students considered to be ready for college or a career is rising steadily, but before the rise began a large number of students were heading off to college unprepared.  Many of those unprepared students are now aged 25 to 34—and without a college degree, Silberman said.“Kids who are not ready coming are less likely to graduate from college,” he saidBut the report says top 20 status is in reach.Silberman said despite the appearance that some categories are progressing too slowly to crest into the top 20 by 2020, Kentucky has opportunities for large improvements in short time. He said Kentucky’s progress in adopting the Common Core standards, if it continues on the current path, will bring “growth spurts” in categories like 8th grade math (currently ranked 36th) and 4th grade math (28th). But despite improvement  that is expected to come from more rigorous standards, Silberman said there is a lot that needs to be done to ensure continued improvement in Kentucky education.Here is a look at the entire 2014 update:

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.