New state school chief blasts critics of high school graduation test prior to its passage

View a slide show of the 2018 Tates Creek High School graduation

Lexington graduates get their diplomas in photos from Tates Creek High School's graduation ceremony in Rupp Arena on June 1, 2018.
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Lexington graduates get their diplomas in photos from Tates Creek High School's graduation ceremony in Rupp Arena on June 1, 2018.

Beginning with the class of 2024, Kentucky students will have to pass a test showing that they have basic math and reading skills before they can graduate from high school, the Kentucky Board of Education voted Wednesday.

Though groups including the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, the Kentucky Education Association, and the Kentucky School Boards Association have urged the state board to take more time before approving the new requirement, Kentucky Board of Education Chairman Hal Heiner said, “I’m convinced that we can prepare our students for their next step in life.”

The requirement is now under a 30-day public comment period. The state board will review all comments in an upcoming board meeting — likely in December. From there, the requirements will go to a legislative committee for final approval.

New Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis, whose annual $200,000 salary and contract was approved by the state board Wednesday, took on critics who have said the changes have been rushed.

“We graduate kids from high school who lack even the basic skills in reading and mathematics, and who lack the skills and ability to move on to post-secondary education and be successful,” he said.

“Rather than celebrate our high school graduation rate, we should hang our heads in shame that all we’ve given students is a certificate of attendance,” a tweet from the Kentucky Department of Education said quoting Lewis in his comment to the state board. 

At state board meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday, Lewis chided some of the education groups for mischaracterizing the graduation test proposal and intentionally misleading the public. He said what he had seen from the Prichard Committee, KEA and the Jefferson County Teachers Association “has been shameful.”

He maintains the groups didn’t tell the public that the state board would receive public comment about the test requirement prior to it going to a legislative committee for approval.

Lewis addressed the mistrust some in Kentucky education circles have in the data he has provided to show that Kentucky’s system of public education is in trouble. Some educators have been critical since Lewis was appointed Interim Commissioner by a state board appointed by Gov. Matt Bevin on the same day in April that then-Commissioner Stephen Pruitt was forced to resigned.

But Lewis didn’t mince words Wednesday.

“When we released test data for the 2018 academic year, you know what most of the conversation seemed to be in our communities? It was about me,” said Lewis. 

Commissioner Wayne Lewis.jpg
State Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis

“Instead of us reflecting on the fact that we have incredible work to do with better preparing our kids for the realities of post-secondary education, the realities of the work force, the fact that we have enormous achievement gaps, the conversation in many of our education communities was about me and whether I had manufactured an accountability system to make schools look bad.”

“I am not that powerful. I have neither the intellectual capacity nor the authority to manufacture an accountability system to do that,” he said.

Noting a pronounced achievement gap between black students and other students in Kentucky, Lewis told the board Wednesday, “the percent of African American students at the level of proficient or higher should make you sick to your stomach. At the eighth grade level 38 percent of African American students across our state are reading at the level of proficient or higher.”

Lewis has said that students could take the new exit exam for the first time in their sophomore year, but if needed they can take it an additional two times in the 11th grade and in the 12th grade. There’s also an appeal process for the test if students have not passed the test by 12th grade and there is an additional appeals process for students who fail to meet the scale score necessary to pass the 10th grade assessments.

Other proposed changes the state board approved were more flexibility in mathematics course requirements.

Josh Shoulta, a spokesman for the Kentucky School Boards Association, said Wednesday that passage of the changes to Kentucky’s high school graduation requirements does not diminish the concerns of his group.

“We will now take full advantage of the 30-day public comment period and encourage the state’s leading education groups who objected to today’s vote to advocate on behalf of students.,” Shoulta said. “While we feel that these requirements should have taken considerably longer to craft and warranted more public input, we will work swiftly to seek clarity. It is unfortunate that the efforts of KSBA and other education groups to raise legitimate concerns have been characterized by some as attempts to deliberately deceive the public.”