Kentucky’s new school-rating system recognizes stars, but troubling gaps persist

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A quarter of Kentucky’s elementary schools performed exceptionally well in the state’s new assessment system, according to data released Tuesday.

Results from middle schools were similar, but fewer high schools performed at the top levels, with only 15 percent earning four or five stars.

Half of Kentucky’s elementary, middle and high schools earned 3 stars in the new system, which Kentucky Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis said “can mean that it’s a pretty good school.”

“Three star doesn’t mean you have a bad school,” Lewis said. “At the very least, three star means that you’re pretty good.”

Some three-star schools, Lewis said, “are doing a really good job.”

The star rating provides a snapshot, but it is not the “end all, be all rating for any school,” he said.

In fact, Lewis said, it’s “patently false,” to believe that a school that is not a four or five star school is not a good school.

Twenty-five percent of elementary schools, 28 percent of middle schools and 32 percent of high schools in the state performed at the rating system’s lowest level with one or two stars. ( Some schools were counted twice if they combined elementary and middle students or middle and high school students.)

The state’s new methods for grading schools give schools more than one way to earn top honors – four or five stars. Elementary and middle schools can get lots of credit for improving students’ results on achievement tests, no matter the final score. High schools get boosts from showing students were college or job ready.

But the approach still relies heavily on whether or not Kentucky students can and do show on tests that they can read and do math. The exams taken annually also check students’ knowledge in science and social studies. Finally, can they write? For high schools, graduation rates are a factor.

Outside the star rating system, Lewis said student assessment results and achievement gaps haven’t shown movement.

Statewide, five-stars schools included 37 elementaries, 12 middle schools and seven high schools.

Otherwise high-performing schools were penalized for gaps in achievement scores for African-American, Hispanic, poor, disabled, non-English speaking students and their peers. Eighty-one four- or five-star schools lost a star because of one or more “significant” achievement gaps. But schools that earn three or fewer stars did not face that penalty for gaps.

Stars aside, the tests show sobering results. Roughly a fifth of all elementary students performed at the lowest level – novice – in reading and math even though the state has focused for years on getting students to the highest achievement levels of proficient or distinguished. Middle schools had similar novice problems in reading.

High schools showed more issues. There, 32.9 percent of students were novices in reading and 30.5 percent were novices in math, according to the state test results.

‘Too many’ novices on state tests

As for achievement gaps, they are significant in many schools.

In reading, 40.6 percent of white elementary students statewide scored at the lowest two levels – novice and apprentice -- in reading compared to 68.9 percent of black students. In math, 47.1 percent of white students were at the bottom levels while 74.5 percent of black students were.

At the middle-school level statewide, 36 percent of white students scored novice and apprentice in reading while 64.1 percent of black students did. In math, 49.3 percent of white students were at bottom levels compared to 77.8 percent of black students.

High-schoolers did not fare much better. Just over half of white students were novice or apprentice in reading compared to 78.9 percent of black students and 70.7 percent of Hispanic students.

“What is most concerning for me is far too many students, particularly economically disadvantaged students, students with disabilities and students of color continue to perform at the Novice level on state assessments,” Lewis said in a news release. “Performing at the Novice level means students demonstrate little to no understanding of the academic content at grade level. That means 40.2 percent of African American elementary school students in Kentucky demonstrate little to no understanding of reading content at their grade level. Novice means academic emergency. These results are unacceptable, but wholly predictable. We cannot continue to use the same approaches we have always used with these students yet expect a different result.”

“We must own our collective failure to move more students out of the Novice level,” said Lewis. “Again, this is a call to action for schools, districts, educators, parents, students, and community and business leaders to put meeting students’ needs above all else. The only question is whether we have the courage to answer that call.”

The impending release of the statewide results didn’t thrill some educators, administrators or school board members who do not want parents or taxpayers to use the information to judge schools. Test scores are just one of the measurements and outcomes parents should consider, they say.

During the years and evolutions of Kentucky’s school assessments, critics have noted that high schoolers weren’t motivated to do well on tests, but the state has used college-entrance exams, the ACT, now required of all high school juniors. The source of the results will change again in coming years.

With five stars being the highest rating for the 2018-2019 school year, 89 schools in Kentucky received one star; 251 received two stars; 643 received three stars; 233 received 4 stars; and 56 received 5 stars.

“As usual, there are Kentucky schools and districts that are improving. We should celebrate their success and learn from their transformational approaches to teaching and learning,” Lewis said. “But the data also show that as a whole, our system is not yet ensuring each and every student – regardless of socioeconomic level, disability or race – is empowered and equipped to pursue a successful future.”

Jasmine Wood, left, and Alex Martinez work at Garth Elementary School in Frankfort, Ky., Monday, Sept. 30, 2019. Ryan C. Hermens

“Schools and communities need to come together following the release of these results to better understand outcomes for each population of students and respond,” said Brigitte Blom Ramsey, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence. “The fact of the matter is, all gaps in student achievement are significant, if we’re serious about ensuring all students are on a path to achieving their potential. Let’s also remember, test scores are an important piece of understanding the quality of our public schools, but not the whole puzzle. We also want to look for other evidence of educational excellence, including the development of problem-solving, team work, communication, and artistic expression. “

The star ratings and federal classifications are based on 2018-2019 K-PREP -- Kentucky Performance Rating for Educational Progress --assessment data and other indicators released by the Kentucky Department of Education .

The accountability system does not rely solely on students’ proficiency on state standardized tests, but also on indicators that include proficiency in reading and mathematics, social studies, science and writing, students’ academic growth or progress over one academic year, and graduation rate.

Transition readiness, historically known as college and career readiness, was also an indicator.

Lewis said that schools that earned a 5-Star rating — ranging from SCAPA at Bluegrass in Fayette County to Viper Elementary in Perry County — did so as a result of “strategic leadership, hard work, and partnership.”

Losing stars for achievement gaps

An otherwise 5- or 4- star school’s rating was lowered by one star if it had one or more statistically significant achievement gaps between the performances of groups of students.

A total of 81 schools’ overall ratings were impacted by their achievement gaps – 16 otherwise five-star schools were lowered to four stars, and 65 otherwise four-star schools were lowered to three stars.

Most of the schools that had star ratings lowered due to achievement gaps needed to improve their efforts with students with disabilities.

Other schools whose ratings were lowered had significant achievement gaps between low-income students and their wealthier peers, English learners and their native-English speaking peers, Black students and their white peers, Hispanic students and their white peers, and students with two or more races and their white peers.

Student academic growth for several elementary and middle schools saw some gains on this year’s test results, according to Lewis.

Growth is calculated by comparing a student’s K-PREP performance level on reading and mathematics -and English language proficiency for English learners — from last year to this year. More than 200 elementary schools saw high growth, and 72 saw very high growth. For middle schools, 41 saw high growth and 26 saw very high growth.

Making the Commissioner’s List for growth

Twenty schools have had at least a 10-point gain in proficiency from 2017-2018 to 2018-2019 and received a Very High label for the growth indicator (elementary/middle schools) or the transition indicator (high schools) in 2018-19, including Garth Elementary in Scott County and Frankfort High School in the Frankfort Independent district and Squires Elementary in Fayette.

Those 20 schools will be in a first-ever Commissioner’s List, Lewis said.

Garth Principal Damon Stefanic said Garth “has established a culture of relationship before rigor”and that goal setting and personal reflection from students and staff is common.

“Students feel welcomed, safe and cared for by the staff,” Stefanic said. “This intentional focus on making students feel comfortable and valued has allowed the school to reach new heights in achievement. Every teacher views student progress weekly and plans instruction at the individual level versus a more general approach.”

At Frankfort High School, said Superintendent Houston Barber, “We wrap our arms around each and every child and meet them where they are in order for them to become the best version of themselves.”

Laurel County and McCracken County are two of the three districts with the most elementaries earning 5 stars, matching far larger Jefferson, and beating Fayette.

Only 7 high schools in Kentucky earned five stars: duPont Manual in Jefferson County, Beechwood High in Beechwood Independent, Jackson City School in Jackson Independent, Murray High School in Murray Independent, Pikeville High School in Pikeville Independent, Model Lab High in Madison and Walton-Verona High School in Walton-Verona Independent.

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