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New test scores show some improvement in Kentucky schools

Students arrive at The Academy @ Shawnee for the first day of school in Jefferson County.
J. Tyler Franklin
Students arrive at The Academy @ Shawnee for the first day of school in Jefferson County.

Test results released Tuesday show Kentucky students made slight gains overall in reading, writing and other subjects, especially in elementary school.

State and local school officials welcomed the improvements and congratulated schools on their efforts, but said there’s still more work to do to make up for the impacts of the pandemic and several natural disasters on learning.

“We expect that there will be needed a multiyear recovery period before school performance really gets back to similar pre-pandemic levels,” Interim Commissioner of Education Robin Fields Kinney told reporters at an embargoed news conference Tuesday in Frankfort.

It’s not clear how much the pandemic affected test scores. Officials waived testing in the 2019-2020 school year due to the pandemic, and the assessment was changed in the 2021-2022 school year from the K-PREP to the KSA. They say that means proficiency rates cannot be accurately compared to pre-pandemic levels.

The proficiency rates released Tuesday represent performance on tests students took in the spring of 2023 and can only be compared to results from the spring of 2022.

Students participate in state testing starting in grade 3. Their scores are rated as “novice,” “apprentice,” “proficient,” or “distinguished,” with proficient or higher being the state’s goal for each student.

The release also includes new accountability ratings from schools and districts. The ratings are color-coded and range from red (lowest), to orange, to yellow, to green, to blue (highest). They are based on a combination of weighted indicators, including test scores, graduation rates and student survey data.

This year’s school accountability ratings cannot be compared to 2022 because state lawmakers changed the formula. Kentucky has not had a consistent accountability rating method from one year to the next since at least 2018.

Statewide improvement in reading and writing

Kentucky students performed best in reading and writing — especially elementary school students, who saw growth in all subjects.

Statewide, 47% of elementary school students tested proficient or higher in reading, up from 45% last year. The biggest improvement for elementary school students was in writing — 43% tested proficient or higher in writing, up from 37% last year.

Proficiency rates for elementary school students in math were 42%, up from 38% last year.

Elementary students performed worst in science. Just 35% of elementary school students tested at the proficiency benchmark, up from 29% last year.

State officials attributed the improvements at the elementary school level to new programs focused on improving early literacy.

“With the support of the Kentucky General Assembly, there have been targeted efforts to focus on improving literacy attainment for our youngest students and early learners,” Kinney said.

Micki Ray, the Kentucky Department of Education’s chief academic officer, said in the past two years the state has invested in high-quality professional learning for early grade teachers, such as the LETRS training.

“We're also seeing more and more districts who are selecting and adopting what we would define as high-quality instructional resources,” Ray said.

Until 2022, curriculum decisions were made by each school’s local governing board. That changed in 2022 with Senate Bill 1, which gave local superintendents the power to choose curriculum for schools. Superintendents who pushed for the change argued it would lead to more uniform, high-quality curricula across districts.

Ray said she expects that success in reading and writing to grow with the implementation of Senate Bill 9, which is meant to move schools towards using evidenced-based curriculum for reading instruction.

Kentucky middle school students also saw improvements in reading and writing. Proficiency rates for middle schoolers statewide were 43% in writing and 45% in reading.

Reading was flat for high school students, with 44% of Kentucky high schoolers meeting the proficiency benchmark. High schoolers improved their writing scores, with 41% testing proficient in writing, up from 38% in 2022.

Kentucky students struggle in math and science

While elementary students saw growth in all subjects, math and science scores for older students stagnated or even declined.

Science was a sore spot for Kentucky students at all grade levels. That’s especially true in high school, where just 10% met the mark for proficiency, down from 14% in 2022.

High schoolers also saw their math scores decline. Just 33% Kentucky high school students tested proficient in math, down from 36% last year. Middle school students’ math scores were flat, with 37% testing proficient.

Kinney suggested that teacher shortages may be behind the declines. STEM — or science, technology, engineering and math — teachers are among the hardest to hire.

“Our areas that are most difficult to recruit our high-quality teachers tend to be in the math and science areas,” Kinney said. “And so you'll see that area is also one that we need to improve upon.”

Results in social studies were mixed. While elementary school students and high school students improved, middle schoolers saw their scores go down. A little more than a third of Kentucky middle and high schoolers tested proficient in social studies.

JCPS elementary school students see gains

Elementary school students in the state’s largest district saw increases in all subjects tested. Like the rest of the state, Jefferson County Public Schools’ youngest learners boosted scores in reading, writing, math science and social studies. However, as in prior years, JCPS’ proficiency rates trail the rest of the state.

JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio said he was “very proud” of the improvements in reading and writing. He attributed the elementary school gains to the adoption of higher-quality curriculum by many schools.

“Those schools that had already implemented the curriculum that is now districtwide, mostly saw increases,” Pollio said during an embargoed news conference Tuesday.

JCPS adopted new uniform K-8 curricula in reading and math districtwide this fall, for the first time.

Proficiency rates for JCPS elementary students in reading were 39%, up from 36% in 2022.

Reading and writing was also a bright spot for JCPS middle school students. The subjects were the only area where middle school students saw improvements. A little over a quarter of JCPS middle school students tested proficient or higher in writing, and just over a third met the mark in reading.

JCPS older students see test scores drop

For the most part, middle and high school students did not see the same gains as their younger counterparts. JCPS high schoolers saw declines in every subject, with the worst drops in math and science.

Just 9% of JCPS high school students tested proficient or higher in science, down from 14% in 2022, closely mirroring the statewide trend. In math, 25% of JCPS students met the mark, down from 29% last year. That matches a statewide decline in math scores for the same age group.

JCPS high school students did not see the boost their statewide counterparts had in reading, writing and social studies. Instead, their scores declined or remained flat.

Asked to comment on the high school declines, Pollio suggested the scores may not reflect the true skill level of JCPS students.

“I know as a high school principal, one of the most challenging things was to get high school kids to give their best effort on an accountability assessment that they really got no benefit from,” he said.

A highlight for JCPS was a 4-year graduation rate of 86.8%, an all-time high for the district. JCPS’ graduation rate still trails the state’s, which was 91.4%.

Pollio said he expects scores to improve for older students as the district continues to replace and improve curricula.

“We have a variety of curricula out there that we have to align and support better,” he said.

Absenteeism, weapons and student behavior

Data released Tuesday shows that both in JCPS and statewide, students are not coming to school as often as they should.

Statewide, 30% of students were chronically absent, meaning they missed 10% or more of the school year. That’s at least 17 missed days for most districts.

In JCPS, the trend was even worse: 41% of JCPS students missed 10% or more of the school year.

“I don't think there's just one thing that you can label, this is why absenteeism has really gotten to where it is. It is a combination of lots of things,” Kinney, the interim education commissioner, said.

“However, we really need them to be back in schools so that we can deliver quality instruction.”

The release shows JCPS saw another increase in the number of times students were disciplined for bringing a weapon to school. In 2023, there were 668 weapons-related incidents in the district, up from 617 the year prior. That includes incidents involving a range of weapons and objects — such as firearms, knives and pepper spray — but also toy guns and everyday items that may have been wielded as a weapon.

The year before the pandemic JCPS disciplined students 220 times for similar incidents.

Disciplinary incidents were up significantly overall for JCPS, from around 70,000 incidents in 2021-2022 to 93,000 in 2022-2023. That’s still fewer than were reported in the 2018-2019 school year.

However, data suggests those behavior incidents are somewhat more likely to involve violence or a weapon than they were before the pandemic.

In the 2022-2023 school year, JCPS had 2,677 incidents in which a student was disciplined for assault, violence or having a weapon. That’s up from 1,395 incidents the year before the pandemic. That mirrors a similar trend statewide.

Here’s where you can find the 2023 Kentucky School Report Card, along with results from prior years.

Support for this story was provided in part by the Jewish Heritage Fund.

This story has been updated to correct the statewide absenteeism rate.

News Youth Reporting
Jess Clark is LPMs Education and Learning Reporter. Email Jess at jclark@lpm.org.

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