Scores from Kentucky's 2012 K-PREP student test were released a little less than three months ago, but schools already are planning ways to improve students' performance on this year's test.
By Thursday, school districts and individual schools across Kentucky must submit annual improvement plans to the state Department of Education. This year the plans must detail steps schools and districts will take to meet ambitious new "delivery targets" on the 2013 K-PREP test.
Each Kentucky district and school has its own individual targets, based on their results from 2012.
For example, 44.2 percent of students at Lexington's Garden Springs Elementary School scored at or above proficient level in reading and math on the 2012 K-PREP. Garden Springs' delivery target for 2013 is to raise that to 49.8 percent when students take the test again this spring.
"The standards are tougher, there's no denying that," Garden Springs Principal Jimmy Brehm said. "But our expectation is to far exceed our delivery targets. If we meet our targets and do nothing more, it will be a disappointment for me and our entire staff."
Under Kentucky's plan, delivery targets will rise gradually each year. A school or district that meets each of its annual targets between now and 2017 will be half way to the goal of lifting all its students to proficient level.
But reaching delivery targets this year could be a stretch for Garden Springs and many other Kentucky schools.
The state's new common core content standards for reading and math are tougher. Statewide math and reading proficiency rates fell noticeably on the 2012 K-PREP, the first test based on the stricter standards. This year, new standards for science also are coming on line, making the hill even steeper to climb.
Many educators, such as Jessamine County Superintendent Lu Young, think making any big gains in Kentucky's new assessment model, known as "Unbridled Learning," will be difficult.
"Under the old system, it wasn't unusual to see a school earn six or seven index points and move up in a single year," Young said. "But the new system is much tighter. So my hunch is the numbers are going to increase much more slowly than before."
Schools won't be penalized for failing to reach delivery targets. State education officials describe the targets as "aspirational" goals intended to guide schools toward reaching proficiency.
However, schools can face penalties for failing to reach another, federally-required goal called the Annual Measurable Objective, or AMO. It sets benchmarks for improving schools' overall scores, based on a combination of test results and other academic factors.
Kentucky schools that were placed in the "Needs Improvement" category in 2012 — there are almost 900 of them statewide — can meet their AMO by raising their overall K-PREP scores a single point this year. Schools that do so will be labeled as "progressing."
A one-point gain might seem modest. But Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday said in a recent interview that education department projections suggest that many schools might fail to make AMO.
"It's a very labor intensive thing that we're asking schools and districts to do," he said.
There have been some differences of opinion among educators about the various testing goals.
At December's Kentucky Board of Education meeting, some members argued that the one-point Annual Measurable Objective is too low.
Board members, including Roger Marcum and Mary Gwen Wheeler, noted that a needs-improvement school could boost its score by one point every year, and rightfully claim to be progressing, even though it might take decades for it to reach the desired K-PREP score of 100 at that rate. They urged Holliday to push school districts to meet the more demanding delivery targets instead.
For now, Holliday says he is stressing the ultimate goal of moving Kentucky schools and school districts toward proficiency. The delivery targets are the prime way to do that, he said.
"Everybody knows their target, and that's what we're pushing hard on, not the AMO," he said. "That means schools have to pay attention to closing gaps; they've got to pay attention to graduation rates; they've got to pay attention to college and career readiness."
Holliday says he'd eventually like to see factors like annual evaluations for teachers, principals and superintendents linked to how well schools are doing in reaching delivery targets and moving students toward proficiency.
"The steeper push will, we think, really drive the improvements that we want," he said. "We don't think AMO is going to drive that. These annual delivery targets are what will really drive improvements."