Which Kentucky, Lexington schools are tops in new tests? And why are some far behind?

Despite years of effort in classrooms, Kentucky still has significant numbers of students achieving at the lowest levels and too little performing at the highest, according to a Herald-Leader analysis of the 2016-17 statewide scores released Thursday by the Kentucky Department of Education.

Consider one-fourth of the state’s high school students earn the lowest marks possible in math and one-third scored the lowest in reading. Meanwhile, only half of the state’s elementary students can read or perform math at high achievement levels.

The results provoked Fayette Superintendent Manny Caulk to say he would hire an outside independent agency to conduct a scholastic audit of low-performing schools. “We are committed to using all the tools available to dramatically improve our schools in need,” Caulk said.

Some schools have unusual success. Multiple schools in the Boyle, Floyd and Laurel districts have managed to keep their students from performing at the lowest levels, called novice, in math, and they are among the 90 or so with just 5 percent or less of novice students.

But that success hasn’t spread to schools having trouble, including 92 with 35 percent or more of their students at novice levels in math. Twenty-four schools are at 45 percent novice or higher. Those include 80 percent of Silver Grove School’s high school students, Morgan County High School, Buckhorn School in Perry County and Lexington’s Booker T. Washington Elementary.

If some schools are able to vastly reduce or have no students performing at the lowest novice levels, why can’t others, particularly after years of endeavoring to do so? If some elementary, middle and high schools are able to get 80 percent or more of their students performing at the highest levels — called proficient or distinguished — why can’t all?

“There is no simple, single answer to raising student achievement,” said Nancy Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Education. In addition to instruction and school climate, students’ backgrounds influence their performance. “Teaching and learning does not lend itself to a factory-style, one-size-fits-all model when the goal is to meet the needs of each and every student. Some instructional methods and programs can be replicated with success in some schools, but not in others.”

State education officials do “believe that all students and schools can achieve at high levels, but .... some schools face increased challenges to raising student achievement that may require additional time, support and effort to overcome,” Rodriguez said.

Brigitte Blom Ramsey, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, said issues of adequate resources for excellent teaching and instructional materials vary widely across the state. “Overall, bright spots exist – bold leadership is taking hold and there is a growing recognition of achievement gaps that cannot persist.

“Communities are important in this equation, too. Communities need to have high expectations for their schools and support the leadership to achieve results. The new accountability goal of reducing achievement gaps by 50 percent by 2030 is the first step in lifting achievement for all students,” said Ramsey.

In Floyd County, where 79 percent of the district’s students are low income, academic performance was strong. Acting Superintendent Steve Trimble said a focus on reading and writing makes a difference. “Literacy is a big thing that we really stress in our classes across the curriculum.”

Also, students in grades five through 12 are given their own laptops to use at school and at home, Trimble said.

While the state completely overhauls its education testing system under new state and federal laws, it did not release overall single scores or performance labels for schools and districts that were previously based on complex formulas.

The stripped down results – minus extra points or weights – focus attention on the fundamentals like how many students are doing well in reading, math and social studies for which students at all levels were tested in the spring.

Parents can compare their schools’ results to other schools in the state to conclude how they are performing. Some findings:

▪  Just 89 schools have 70 percent or more of their students performing at the highest levels in math. Those include six high schools, 68 elementary schools and 15 middle schools. Top schools include Greathouse/Shryock Traditional elementary in Jefferson County, which has 94.9 percent of students at proficient or distinguished levels and Floyd’s John M. Stumbo’s elementary and middle grades at 89.7 and 87.6 percent, respectively.

▪ More students perform at the highest levels in reading than in math, but only 143 schools had 70 percent or more of the students scoring proficient or distinguished. Top performers include Betsy Layne Elementary, where 95.3 percent of students tested at the highest achievement levels; fellow Floyd County school, May Valley; and Pikeville High School.

The School for the Creative and Performing Arts at Bluegrass or SCAPA in Lexington is a gifted and talented magnet school for fourth- through eighth-grade students. Students audition in one of nine art areas for admission, and artistic ability is the sole entrance factor. Nevertheless, elementary and middle school level students are among the state’s best academic performers in reading as well as math and social studies.

“Because the kids do have an artistic talent, they learn discipline and that carries over into their academics. We integrate the arts into the academic areas, that way we are tapping into their strengths,” said SCAPA principal Beth Randolph.

▪  For all the high reading marks there are more low marks as 178 schools had 35 percent or more of their students performing at the worst, or novice, levels in reading. It gets worse for 54 schools where 45 percent or more scored at the bottom level. Jefferson County schools dominated the bottom 25.

But Fayette had two schools in the bottom 25 and three in the worst 30. Those are Booker T. Washington at 61.9 percent novice, Arlington at 56.7 percent novice and William Wells Brown elementary at 53.1 percent novice. All three of the Fayette schools with high numbers of novice students also had high numbers of low-income students.

Of the three subjects, more schools were able to get their students to the highest achievement levels in social studies, by far, with 342 schools having 70 percent or more at proficient or distinguished levels. Twenty-three schools had 90 percent or more of their students scoring at the highest levels.

Top performers include Allen Elementary School in Floyd County; WR Castle Memorial Elementary in Johnson County; and GR Hampton Elementary in Knox County. At GR Hampton, 96.7 percent of students were proficient or distinguished in social studies and no one was a novice. Some of the top performers in social studies were the same schools that did well in reading and/or math.

Fifty-one schools had 35 percent or more score in the worst category, novice. The largest amount of novice Social Studies students were at Jenkins Independent School in Letcher County

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