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Three Takeaways From the New Harvard Report on Kentucky Public Schools

Alix Mattingly

A new data tool from Harvard University is providing more specific insights into student performance at Kentucky's public schools.

The Strategic Data Project uses information provided by the state Department of Education from 2011 and 2012 to track and analyze high school students' progress as they entered school, graduated and attended college. The project assesses four markers of achievement: the pathway from high school to college, high school graduation rates, college enrollment and whether students stuck with higher education.

The data — which drills down to the performance of individual schools — is not new. But its presentation and accessibility are innovations in the state.

“Data can really help zero in on what the problems are and the barriers are that we should be focused on by school," said Mary Gwen Wheeler, executive director of 55,000 Degrees, a public-private partnership that seeks to increase college readiness in Louisville. "It’s important not to see this as a one-size-fits-all solution, and that’s where this really helps.”

Here are a few key takeaways. Click on the images to view the interactive data presentations.

Statewide, there was a huge drop-off between students graduating high school and seamlessly transitioning into college.

While more than eight in 10 students who started high school in Kentucky finished on time, less than half of those ninth-graders went straight from graduation into college. In fact, the state beat the national average for high school graduation rates by 2 percent. But Kentucky was 11 percent below the national average for seamless transitions into college.

According to Jefferson County Public Schools, 20 percent of high school students who graduated in 2013 and intended to go to college — measured, for instance, by whether they filled out financial aid forms, among other markers — did not ultimately enroll.

Superintendent Donna Hargens said Monday at an event launching the new data tool that the district is working to reduce this "summer melt." Among the ways: JCPS is now sending text message reminders about enrollment to students who sign up. It's also partnering students with mentors in the summer months.

The five lowest-performing schools for college readiness in Kentucky were in Jefferson County — and they had some of the highest populations of students receiving free or reduced-price meals.

According to the Harvard report, ninth-graders at Iroquois High School, The Academy @ Shawnee, Western High School, Valley High School and Doss High School were the least-prepared for college based on their scores on the Kentucky Core Content Test and the ACT.

Another thing those five schools have in common: Roughly nine of every 10 students at each school received free or reduced-price meals. That means their families live either below, at or just above the federal poverty line.

By contrast, at the highest-performing JCPS school for college prep — duPont Manual, which also got the second-highest marks in the state in this category — about a quarter of students receive free or reduced-price lunches.

Two-thirds of JCPS students are considered low-income. Last year, WFPL News explored the challenges those students face in depth in our "At Risk" series.

A JCPS spokeswoman told WFPL News on Tuesday that the district's college readiness score — which includes measures for career readiness — had improved by more than a third in the past three years.

Being geographically close to two- and four-year colleges matters. 

In the graphic above, the colored dots show the locations of two- and four-year colleges. By and large, the counties where fewer students went straight from high school to college were the ones without an institution of higher learning nearby.

It works the other way, too. The University of Kentucky is a magnet for high school graduates in Fayette County, for example.

But not always. Jefferson County, which is home to six colleges and universities, claims just a 57 percent seamless college enrollment rate.

To explore the data further, click here.

For a look at the school data JCPS makes public, click here.

Stephen George is President and CEO of Louisville Public Media. Email Stephen at sgeorge@lpm.org.