Education

Even top Kentucky students falling short in college math skills

Kentucky Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt gave his annual “State of P-12 Education in Kentucky” address in Frankfort Wednesday.
Kentucky Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt gave his annual “State of P-12 Education in Kentucky” address in Frankfort Wednesday. Bobby Ellis, Kentucky Department of Education

Even students with the best grades are falling short in reaching Kentucky college readiness standards in math, according to a Kentucky Department of Education analysis of student performance between 2012 and 2016.

Students who earned an A in high school math had only a 75 percent chance of reaching the Council on Postsecondary Education’s math benchmark score of 19 on the ACT, a standardized test college admissions officers often use. Students earning a C have only a 25 percent chance of meeting the benchmark.

The analysis also found that black and low-income students have substantially lower chances of scoring proficient on state tests or meeting the math benchmark than their white or wealthier peers even if their grades were the same. Achieving the benchmark allows students to enter courses in college without taking remedial classes. In middle school, black students had a lower chance of achieving proficiency on state math tests than white counterparts even when they earned the same average grade.

Kentucky Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt released the details of the study Wednesday in his annual “State of P-12 Education” in Kentucky address.

The difference in performance among various student groups is too wide, Pruitt said.

Low-income students were shown to have a lower chance of scoring proficient than their wealthier peers. For low-income students who earned an average letter grade of an A in their middle school math courses, the chance of scoring proficient was about 12 percentage points lower than that of their wealthier peers, Pruitt said.

Lower expectations could also lead to the inflation of grades that actually inaccurately reflect what happens with our students.

Kentucky Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt

Pruitt said black and low-income students aren’t getting rigorous instruction in math. He said opportunity, access and low expectations is a problem that has to be addressed.

One possible explanation, Pruitt said, “is that we simply have that lower expectation for our students of color and lower income.”

“I do believe that people think they are helping by doing that,” Pruitt said. “Lower expectations could also lead to the inflation of grades that actually inaccurately reflect what happens with our students.”

For every letter grade category, a black student’s chance of scoring proficient in math was the same as that of a white student who earned the next grade lower, he said.

Pruitt said a gap between male and female students develops in high school across all letter-grade categories, with female students facing lower chances of meeting the ACT benchmark than their male counterparts who earned the same average letter grade. However, the impact of gender is smaller in magnitude than race or income.

The gap also can be seen in Advanced Placement course participation between different groups of students. During the 2015-16 school year, Pruitt said 4.1 percent of white students in grades 9 through 11 took one AP math course as opposed to 1.4 percent of black students.

We don’t realize that we aren’t being honest with our schools by making them think that they are better than they are.

Kentucky Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt

Pruitt said it’s time for a new statewide education accountability system. “We don’t realize that we aren’t being honest with our schools by making them think that they are better than they are.”

He said the good things about Kentucky’s education system should be celebrated, “but we’ve got to be honest.”

“We aren’t helping anybody by simply making them feel better,” Pruitt said.

Pruitt said white and wealthier students aren’t making benchmarks either. He said Kentucky has great teachers and the state education system has made progress but has not “serviced every child.”

Nawanna Privett, a Kentucky Board of Education member who represents Fayette County, said Pruitt's determination to close achievement gaps “isn't just rhetoric.”

Pruitt said Kentucky would be “ramping up rigor” and giving more kids more opportunity.

Valarie Honeycutt Spears: 859-231-3409, @vhspears

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