FORT MITCHELL, Ky. -- Kentucky enjoyed another year of rising K-12 state test scores with plenty of room for improvement, especially achievement gaps among minority and special needs students.
The state's four-year high school graduation rate inched up to 88.6 percent from 88 percent a year earlier, and other key indicators rose, too, including:
- Average ACT score for juniors rose to 19.5 from 19.4
- The college/career readiness rate jumped to 68.5 -- up from 66.9 last year
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Results were mixed for the state's longtime challenge of closing the achievement gap between white, middle-income students and minority, low-income and disabled students.
Elementary-level "gap" students saw test scores improve in reading and mathematics, but they dropped in social studies, writing and language mechanics.
Middle-school "gap" students performed better in every category compared to a year ago except for dropping in language mechanics.
High school "gap" students had mixed results, faring better in reading, math, social studies and language mechanics, but falling in science and writing.
“We saw some improvements overall in scores, but there are still huge gaps between groups of students,” Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt said. "We need to take collective ownership of this problem and undertake a culture change."
As state officials are wont to do, the rules of the testing game were changed for last spring's cycle. In the previous four years, the state only counted the score once for students who fit into more than one underachieving category -- for example, a low-income African-American, or a low-income white student with a learning disability.
This year, those students were counted in each category that applied.
Bill Grein, who oversees testing for Covington Independent Schools, said counting some students in as many as four "gap" categories were part of the reason his district's scores fell.
"All those are factors but they're also excuses," Grein said. "We'll rebound. We have to concentrate on every single kid."
Grein said the district provided training over the summer to prevent teachers from delegating responsibility for the success of some of their students to special education teachers or others.
"They have to think everybody in this classroom is mine. We did a lot of training this summer, but it still comes down to getting teachers to buy in and really take ownership for their students' successes," he said.
State test or college prep?
Beechwood Independent Schools, one of the state's perennial high achievers, saw most of its scores rise again this year. But Superintendent Mike Stacy expressed frustration over the state's meddling with the formula.
The state plans to stop tracking ACT performances as part of the overall evaluation, which he thinks is a mistake that runs counter to getting graduates admitted to good colleges and earning merit scholarships.
"We have the ACT that's a normed, national assessment that we say we're taking off the accountability model for the upcoming system. If we're going to measure ourselves on that level, I don't understand," he said.
Beechwood strives to do well on the state tests, he said, but the district has to weigh focusing on that state grades against other priorities.
"I have to ask myself the question every year: Do I play this state assessment game or do I improve our children's educational experience and make them competitive in the national and global market?"
Tiny Silver Grove Schools, which has 180 K-12 students, struggles to fill categories that require 10 test scores to count. If Superintendent Dennis Maines has eight students who performed well, he has nothing to show for it.
Silver Grove's scores dropped, including the overall score falling to 49.8 from 57.6 a year ago and gap students missing the state's achievement goal.
Maines, in his first year as superintendent, didn't want to make excuses.
"Regardless of the system it still boils down to where students are achieving and growing," Maines said. "In a general sense, we need to raise our expectations, expect more out of our students, increase rigor, push and challenge students at every level and provide interventions where they're needed."