Most Kentucky schools are improving, putting a slim majority of them on track to reach their mandated goal of scoring 100 on statewide achievement tests by 2014.
Nearly 8 percent of the state's schools have already reached the goal, more than double the amount from two years ago. For the first time, no school scored below 50 on the Commonwealth Accountability Testing System.
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Still, state officials remain concerned about high schools, which are generally lagging behind elementary schools.
"I think the results are mixed," State Education Commissioner Jon Draud said. "Our high school scores concern me. We need to refocus on our high schools, and we need to refocus our effort on our lowest-achieving schools."
Of the 20 top-performing schools in the state, all but one is an elementary school. Conversely, middle schools and high schools make up 15 of the 20 lowest-performing schools.
The relative weakness of high schools was highlighted last week when the state released ACT results for public high school juniors, who took the college preparation test under a state mandate for the first time last year.
Of the nearly 43,000 public high school juniors who took the test last spring, only 20 percent met math goals and 15 percent met science goals. A student who met the goal is likely to earn a C or higher in first-year college courses.
Changing the test
Some wonder whether several changes to CATS in 2006 may have made the test easier.
To bring the state's test in line with federal requirements, officials added math and reading exams and more multiple-choice questions. The following year, test scores jumped at many schools.
The median state score for the current two-year testing cycle is 85, up from 80.4 in 2006 and 76.1 in 2004. Meanwhile, the number of schools requiring assistance from the state because they haven't shown improvement has dropped from 43 in 2006 to 27 this year.
"I don't know whether it's an easier test or not," Draud said.
To further complicate the matter, the revamped test required the state to provide each school two scores.
Schools are assigned a raw, or unadjusted, score that can be used to see how far they are from the statewide goal of 100 out of a possible 140. The other score, an adjusted number, can be compared to previous scores, and it was used this year to judge each school's progress.
Unadjusted scores, which will be used by the state to judge schools in the future, are consistently higher than adjusted scores. For example, the state's median two-year score of 85 increases to 88.6 when using unadjusted figures.
The complexity of CATS results, which can't be used to compare Kentucky students to those in the rest of the nation, has caused some to call for dismantling the system.
"It's time to set aside the CATS test and go with a more nationally recognized test that we can use to determine where our kids are," said Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville.
The Senate approved legislation this year to replace CATS with nationally normed multiple-choice tests, but the measure died in the Democratic-led House.
Williams criticized CATS for not providing enough information about how individual students are performing. He said many teachers now focus on teaching the test and get bogged down with unnecessary paperwork.
Twenty-four of the state's 1,174 schools have gained more than 20 points over the past two years.
They are led by May Valley Elementary in Floyd County, which jumped 31.7 points to become the highest-scoring elementary, with a two-year adjusted score of 125.1.
Principal Tonya Williams said the school uses a team-teaching approach, with two teachers in every third- to fifth-grade reading and math class.
May Valley has 420 students, three-fourths of whom are low-income. Unless all students are ready for the next lesson, classes do not move on to it, she said.
"You have to go and look at the root of the problem," Williams said. "Our teachers are what makes the difference in my building. They go above and beyond and don't waste a minute of the day."