Kentucky school districts are adjusting to a new testing system that ranks almost 70 percent of the state's schools in the lowest category: "needs improvement."
The results, released at 12:01 a.m. Friday, may come as a shock to school districts that had generally ranked higher in previous tests. But the system's design automatically ensured that 69 percent of schools and districts would end up in the "needs improvement" classification.
And state educators and testing experts caution parents and teachers not to panic, that the new test of national higher standards with more components — such as graduation rates and college and career readiness — meant more schools were bound to find the test harder going.
Of the other 31 percent of schools and districts, those between 70 and 89 percent are "proficient" and those at 90 percent and higher are "distinguished."
"I'm still having to adjust my vocabulary," said Anthony Orr, superintendent of Nelson County schools and a former principal of Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Lexington.
"In some sense, any of us would say we need improvement," Orr said. For the past nine months, he and school employees have been trying to prepare the community by pointing out higher standards in math and reading, plus many more components. (In addition, the highest score has gone from 140 to 100.)
For example, at the elementary level, schools are judged on actual test scores, along with the performance of minority, special education and low-income students. Around the state, 31 schools were proficient or distinguished but were also "focus" schools, meaning those groups had not scored well enough.
The test also looked at the growth of every academic level. A fourth-grader who reads at the fifth-grade level will still have to make progress to earn points, just as someone who reads below grade level will have to improve.
This has tripped up some schools. In Grayson County, Superintendent Barry Anderson said one school that usually scored the highest on statewide tests scored the lowest this time around because growth rates were too low. It's confusing for teachers even as they try to improve, he said.
"That school didn't get dumb in one day that they took the test," Anderson said. "I'm conflicted about this. Our public will be conflicted."
At the middle and high school level, schools will see the most changes because of including testing from the ACT test. The statewide percentage of students who are college or career-ready is 47.2 percent, which is an increase from last year of 38 percent.
High schools are also judged on growth and graduation rates. "It is multi-measured, but I think that's somewhat as a result of the attempt to meet the expectations of parents and teachers that the score on a test is not the only thing schools should be measured by," said Wilson Sears, director of the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents. "It is complicated, and we understand that, but I also think it is more comprehensive than it was before."
The larger issue might be test fatigue. In the past 20 years, Kentucky's teachers and students have toiled over the KIRIS test, which under political pressure became the CATS test. Around 2007, that changed to CATS II, which segued into the KCCT test.
The new test is called Kentucky Performance Rating for Educational Progress — K-PREP for short — the fifth high-stakes, high-pressure system in two decades. When parents are told each time that this test is the best one, confidence can wane, school officials said.
Add to that the fact that schools have been placed on a bell curve, which means that roughly two-thirds of them have to fall into the "needs improvement category," even though their score might be very close to one deemed "proficient."
Roger Marcum, former superintendent of Marion County and a member of the Kentucky Board of Education, says he understands this but hopes parents will still pay attention.
"We are looking at more things than we ever have before," he said.
In addition, Marcum said, as the scores roll out and get more analysis, the state school board is willing to tweak pieces of the testing system.
Education consultant Susan Weston said the issue becomes more confused because standards got lowered in the transitions between testing systems, particularly between 2007 and 2009.
"The current testing system has clearer standards for reading, writing and mathematics, and it has more demanding scoring for those subjects," she said. "Those are improvements over all our past tests. It's likely the best move we could have made this year."
On the extreme ends of the testing system, the results did not stray far from past years. The top districts included mostly small, independent districts with wealthier student bodies, such as Anchorage, Fort Thomas and Murray. The lower end included the far reaches of the state, such as Fulton, Magoffin and Clay counties, which have high numbers of low-income students.
Three schools, The Academy @ Shawnee, Frost Middle in Jefferson County and Chavies Elementary in Perry County, scored only in the high 20s; the highest score in the state, 91.6, belonged to Anchorage's middle school.
But it's the vast middle that caught up most districts, including 328 schools statewide that scored below 50 points out of 100.
Kentucky is the first state in the country to adopt the national Common Core Standards, and to test on them.
"The world has changed," said Commissioner Terry Holliday. "This is the first time all the states have come together and said, 'Here are the standards to make us more competitive.'"
Staff writer Linda J. Johnson contributed to this story. Linda B. Blackford: (859) 231-1359; Twitter: @lbblackford