FRANKFORT — Kentucky climbed to 10th place nationally in the 2013 Quality Counts survey of the states' education performance, released Thursday by Education Week magazine.
It's an impressive performance for Kentucky, which over the years has often lagged well down the listings in many national educational reports. In fact, Kentucky has jumped 24 places in the Quality Counts annual report over the past two years. The state ranked 34th in 2010 and climbed to 14th last year.
Gov. Steve Beshear said at a news conference Thursday afternoon that Education Week's 2013 ranking shows that Kentucky's public school system is a leader in reform. He said the state continues to climb in all national education rankings.
"We're improving faster than most other states," Beshear said.
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State Education Commissioner Terry Holliday attributed Kentucky's rise in Thursday's report to better tests scores and the state's high marks in aligning early childhood, K-12 and high education programs.
"In spite of the worst recession, in spite of the budget cuts, in spite of the new standards, in spite of the new assessments, in spite of the higher expectations, our teachers and our leaders continue to make it happen for kids every day," Holliday said.
Education Week's Quality Counts reports ranks states on several measures, including accountability and assessment, teacher quality, school funding and overall student achievement.
Maryland ranked number one nationally in the 2013 Quality Counts survey, the fifth straight year it has led the rankings.
It was followed in order by Massachusetts, New York, Virginia, Arkansas. Florida, Georgia, New Jersey, West Virginia, and Kentucky.
Amy Hightower, a member of the Education Week research team that put together the national report, said Thursday that Kentucky benefitted from several policy decisions by state educational officials.
Recent steps include the General Assembly's 2009 adoption of Senate Bill 1, which revamped the state student testing system, and the adoption of demanding new common core content standards in 2010.
While Kentucky earned some "Cs" in individual measures, its overall grade of B-minus put the state in 10th place nationally. The national average was a C-plus.
Brad Hughes, spokesman for the Kentucky School Boards Association, said the state's top 10 ranking in a national survey of overall education achievement is notable.
"There are many different educational rankings out there, and we've gotten As in some individual areas before at times," he said. "But as far as a multi-element ranking putting Kentucky in the top 10 in education, if it's not the first it's got to be doggone close to the first."
Hughes noted that Education Week's report carries "huge credibility" because the magazine is widely respected as non-partisan. Kentucky's high national ranking enhances the state's reputation and boosts the image of Kentucky high school graduates, he said.
Stu Silberman, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, said Thursday's report tracks with other independent rankings showing Kentucky's continued improvement.
"I feel great about our success," Silberman said. "We're reaching more kids every day."
Still, the Quality Counts report shows Kentucky has work to do.
The state earned grades of C or C-minus in measures including K-12 Achievement, School Finance, and Chances For Success. It received an A in Transitions and Alignment; an A-minus in Standards, Assessments & Accountability, and a B-minus in Teaching Profession.
Kentucky's lowest scores were in school funding. The state received an "F" for the amount it spends per pupil. But Beshear noted that the state's overall funding grade rose to C-minus because of high marks Kentucky received for funding school districts equally.
"We have a lot to celebrate," Beshear said. "Think how much progress we could be making if we were adequately funding our schools. Think where we would be if we truly invested in our future."
The governor didn't say where he thought additional education funding could come from. But Beshear said he will not back any cuts to education to fund other parts of state government, such as a growing unfunded liability in the public pension system.
While Kentucky has not cut the main funding formula for K-12 education, per-pupil funding has fallen in many school districts. The state also has had to cut dollars for textbooks and reduce other supplemental funding.
Holiday said the state also could face a federal education funding reduction of 8.2 percent to 9.0 percent in July. Those cuts, about $61 million a year, could hurt some of Kentucky's poorest school districts unless Congress acts by March 1 to halt the reductions, he said.
Silberman agreed, saying that many of the supports systems that have allowed Kentucky to makes strides in education have been cut.
"We will eventually see a significant drop," he said of the national rankings. "We have to look at education as an investment."