Kentucky schools struggle with mandate

Kentucky schools struggled to meet tougher federal No Child Left Behind goals this year.

Only 71 percent of schools met targets — a drop from last year, when more than three-fourths of schools reached goals, according to data released Tuesday.

Of the state's 1,174 public schools, 354 didn't meet NCLB targets this year. Of those, 34 failed to meet goals for six or more consecutive years.

The federal mandate requires all Title 1 schools — those with significant low-income student populations that receive federal money — to meet goals for all children or face sanctions that could include a state takeover in the most severe cases. But in Kentucky, even the poorest performing schools aren't likely to face such dramatic action.

“State takeover is the absolute last resort, and there are no plans to implement that for any schools,” said Lisa Gross, spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Education.

The state took over Floyd County schools in 1998 to address financial mismanagement issues and pulled out in 2005.

That experience “might have convinced them that (state takeover) is not such a good idea,” said Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy based in Washington, D.C. “The basic problem with state takeover of a school is that many state departments of education are not equipped to do it.”

Jennings said state takeovers have not necessarily led to higher test scores. Also, Kentucky's test, known as the Commonwealth Accountability Testing System, which tests students in a range of subjects, complicates NCLB because there are different goals for both mandates. CATS requires all students to reach 100 out of a possible score of 140.

“When it comes to No Child Left Behind, it's layered over the state school reform,” he said. “It doesn't quite fit like a hand into a glove.”

Jennings said state departments of education should work more closely with districts to provide resources to perennially struggling schools. One of the most important tasks a state can help with is the hiring and training of teachers and staff, he said.

“Unfortunately what we see in most parts of the country is that states and school districts do nothing,” said Mike Petrilli, vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute based in Washington, D.C. “There are so few places that have tried a fundamental overhauling of a school that we just don't know how to do that well.”

Petrilli said struggling schools need a fresh start by replacing school administrators and teachers and giving schools more autonomy.

“Give (a struggling school) some breathing room,” he said. “Try to figure out if there is something at the district level that is contributing to these problems.”

This year, target NCLB goals in math and reading increased by an average of nine percentage points for all grade levels. State officials believe that increase contributed to the lower percentage of schools meeting NCLB goals.

Schools that miss targets are placed in a tier system, with Tier 5 being the worst. Those schools must make drastic changes, which could include more teacher training, adopting a new curriculum or using the help of state education experts.

Jefferson County's Thomas Jefferson Middle School is just one of 22 Tier 5 schools in that district.

Bob Rodosky, director of research for Jefferson County schools, said Thomas Jefferson is a “terrific school,” but must meet more goals than any other school in the state because of its large, diverse population. Most schools don't have to meet many goals because they don't have enough students in particular demographic subgroups.

Rodosky said teachers are trying to connect academic concepts to real-world knowledge to make instruction more relevant. Jefferson's Okolona Elementary did just that to meet NCLB targets for the first time this year after failing to do so for seven years.

With goals increasing every year, the school faces another tough task, he said.

“I worry about next year because we're going up again (about) 8 percent and 10 percent,” he said.