I was heartened by Gov. Steve Beshear's State of the Commonwealth speech, and his strong commitment to the future of Kentucky's children. He has consistently supported education, even in difficult economic times, and I am grateful he continues to place such a critical focus on the children of this commonwealth.
I do not take the governor's support and commitment to education lightly. That is why we are working diligently to ensure all Kentucky's students are college/career-ready when they graduate from high school. It is an economic imperative not only for our students but also for our state.
Over the past year, Kentucky has undertaken a number of initiatives and realized some major achievements that underscore our efforts:
■ Improved readiness: The percentage of students who graduated from college and career ready jumped from 38 percent to 47 percent in a single year; that translates to more than 4,500 students with a better opportunity to be successful after high school.
■ Gains in achievement: Kentucky students showed steady progress on major national tests such as EXPLORE, PLAN and ACT, in many cases scoring above the national average for the first time. More Kentucky students are taking challenging Advanced Placement courses and scoring higher on tests.
On the National Assessment of Educational Progress eighth-grade science test, Kentucky students significantly outperformed their peers nationally. According to a report from Harvard University, Kentucky is tied for fifth place nationwide in the improvement of its students' performance in assessments of reading, mathematics and science since 1992.
■ School Report Card: This new online tool allows all citizens to easily see how their school or district measures up against others. It provides detailed information on accountability, assessments, school safety and more. It also provides graphs showing actual performance against annual improvement targets in the areas of proficiency, achievement gap and college/career-readiness.
All this data is available at www.education.ky.gov and will equip parents, businesses and communities with information to ask tough questions and demand excellence of their schools and district.
■ Federal waiver: In February 2012, Kentucky was among the first states granted flexibility from some of the requirements of the No Child Left Behind/Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
While we are still focused on proficiency, closing achievement gaps, increasing graduation rates and annual progress, the waiver allows funding flexibility and for the state to use a single comprehensive method — the Unbridled Learning: College/Career Readiness for All Accountability System — to determine whether students, schools and districts are meeting state and federal goals.
■ Districts of Innovation: HB 37 (2012) allows public school districts exemptions from certain regulations and policies in exchange for them creating new, innovative learning environments. By rethinking what a school might look like, districts will be able to redesign student learning to engage and motivate more students and increase the numbers of students who are college and career ready. KDE will begin accepting applications from districts this spring. We have made great strides this past year, but our work is far from done. Upcoming changes include:
■ A statewide kindergarten readiness screener that will give teachers valuable information they can use to meet student needs and maximize learning from the first day of school.
■ Next-generation science and social studies standards that promote 21st-century skills. And we must remain steadfast in our support of common core standards in English/language arts and mathematics knowing that short-term setbacks in scores will yield more competitive students.
Continued work to raise student proficiency rates and close achievement gaps between all student groups. While not quite half of our lowest performing schools are showing progress, we must find answers and implement solutions to put those who aren't on the path to improvement.
■ A statewide Professional Growth and Effectiveness System designed to provide educators meaningful feedback and tools to improve their practice and impact student learning in a positive way. This is a critical piece in our overall strategy to advance education in Kentucky. We have our work cut out for us. Based on the progress I have seen and the efforts I have witnessed as I visit classrooms around this state, however, I remain confident Kentucky educators are up to the task.
Kentucky has made tremendous progress in education in the past several years. Yet, as the governor noted during his speech, 88 percent of Kentucky students attend schools in districts where per pupil spending is below the national average.
I, too, share his sense of concern and urgency regarding the need for additional K-12 funding and will continue to encourage lawmakers to identify additional revenues for our educational efforts.
Our focus and commitment to prepare Kentucky's children for the future does not waver — it remains stronger than ever.
Terry Holliday is Kentucky Education Commissioner.