Kentucky's students are making incremental progress in basic subjects such as reading and math, with more students scoring in the highest categories of the state's testing program, according to results released Friday.
"The statewide data clearly show we are making progress, though slower than we would like," Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday said.
In the second year of a labyrinthine testing system called Kentucky Performance Rating for Educational Progress — K-PREP for short — schools are judged on more than just how well students score in academics. They're also evaluated on how well their students progress compared with their peers, how well socioeconomic and ethnic groups score, and at the upper levels, how many students graduate and how many are ready for college and careers.
Scores for Kentucky's high schools showed the biggest gains, with the overall average score up 5.4 points to 60.3 out of a possible 100.
High schools were helped by a jump in the number of students who met benchmarks for college and career readiness. More high school students also scored in the top two categories — proficient and distinguished — in math, social studies, writing and language. (See your district's scores)
"We're really glad to see that movement in the high schools because it's always been a tough area," said Stu Silberman, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence.
On average, elementary schools moved from 57.5 to 58.5 out of a possible 100. Middle schools also moved up a point, from 54.1 to 55.6. (See the top elementary, middle and high schools)
The number of Kentucky schools labeled distinguished — the highest category — increased from 137 in 2012 to 179 in 2013.
Some of the red flags raised by test results include slight drops in reading, science and social studies scores at the elementary levels, and a drop in math scores at the high school level, Silberman said.
But he was happy to see high scores from a larger percentage of students in closely watched groups, such as those with limited English proficiency or with disabilities. Those gains were seen across all academic subjects except math.
"We want to move those kids who are the furthest behind the fastest, and we're seeing some good growth," Silberman said.
Kentucky is one of the first states in the country to adopt what are known as Common Core standards in reading and math, which educators say are far more rigorous than previous standards. Children were first tested on those standards last year.
Despite all the changes in testing — K-PREP is the fifth statewide system in the past two decades — many statewide trends remained the same.
Jefferson County had the highest-scoring high school in the state — DuPont Manual High School — and seven of the lowest-scoring high schools. (The state's largest school district is undergoing an extensive investigation by state Auditor Adam Edelen, partly because of such persistent academic problems.)
Anchorage Independent, a small, wealthy independent district in Jefferson County, kept its perch near the top of elementary and middle schools, along with Bluegrass SCAPA and Veterans Park Elementary in Fayette. (MORE: As schools improve on test, Fayette moves from 'needs improvement' to 'proficient and Test results a mixed bag for Central Kentucky school districts)
In terms of progress, three Clay County elementary schools showed unusual improvement. Big Creek, Pace's Creek and Goose Rock elementary schools each increased their scores between 18 and 24 points.
Superintendent Amon Crouch said that after receiving disappointing scores last year, the district's administrators and teachers "went back and laid everything on the table" in terms of teaching and learning.
"We have been making sure that we have personalized instruction that helps every child," he said. "Our goal is for every child to graduate; this growth is a byproduct of that."
Nancy Rodriguez, spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Education, said the department conducts an annual review of schools that post extremely high growth, although she did not say Clay County would be included in that review.
Montgomery County Schools also moved up the rankings. Superintendent Josh Powell said the district targeted school cultures and working conditions.
"We've empowered the teachers and worked on the culture," he said.
Last year, many educators worried about the complexity of the new testing system, and whether it added too many tests to already burdened students.
Silberman said there's an uneasy balance between holding educators accountable for student learning and not putting too much emphasis on statewide tests.
"We want to encourage folks to do well, but sometimes that translates to too much pressure about the tests," he said. "You want all kids to be achieving at high levels, but you don't want everything to revolve around that test."