Kentucky has made substantial strides in education during the past two decades and now ranks 33rd nationwide in an index of education performance indicators, according to a new study by the University of Kentucky.
The report, by UK's Center for Business and Economics Research, says Kentucky's ranking on the Index of Educational Progress has risen by more than almost any other state during the past 20 years. In 1990, Kentucky ranked 48th.
"At 33rd, we still have a ways to go," said analyst Michael Childress, who worked on the study. "It's a good news story, in the sense that we have improved our rank dramatically. But at the same time, we are still at the top of the bottom third."
Still, Childress said, the updated numbers dispel the long-held image of Kentucky as one of the very lowest achievers nationwide in measures ranging from prekindergarten to postsecondary education.
"That's just not accurate," Childress said. "It was accurate 20 years ago, but that conventional wisdom has been slow to evolve."
He credited legislatively mandated reforms from 1990 and 1997 for leading "to a pretty significant improvement in the quality of Kentucky's education."
The index used in the report includes the percentage of residents with high school, two-year or bachelor's degrees; high school dropout rates; American College Testing, or ACT, scores; and advanced placement scores and national scores in reading, math and science. It grew out of earlier work by the old Kentucky Long Term Policy Research Center, according to Childress.
UK researchers used five to 12 education indicators, employing statistical information about each to develop a number evaluating how a state's measure compared with other states.
The new report was prompted by the availability of new education data and by Kentucky leaders' continuing desire to know how the state is doing compared with others across the country, Childress said.
State Education Commissioner Terry Holliday said the state hasn't "tooted our horn enough about the progress that's been made since the 1990s in Kentucky."
While Holliday said the state still has a long way to go to catch up with other states, it has made substantial progress.
"We're not a bottom-five state," he said. "We're working hard to move."
Richard Innes, an education analyst with the free-market-focused Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, said he had not seen the UK report, but he questioned some of the methods apparently employed in the study, such as using ACT data and results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, in making state-by-state comparisons.
Innes said, for example, that while all Kentucky students now take the ACT, many other states rely on the SAT.
"You can't compare Kentucky's ACT scores with other states where 100 percent of students aren't tested," he said. Using NAEP results presents similar problems, Innes contended.
"I do not believe the methodology provides you with solid evidence to support any kind of ranking like that," he said.
Childress insisted that there was no cherry-picking of data to make Kentucky look better in the results.
"I believe that the data are good and that this is an accurate reflection of the progress that's taken place out in the state," he said.
The UK study includes numerous caveats, among them:
■ Not all the indicators used in 2009 were available in 1990.
■ Indicators such as those that measure achievement gaps are not included in the index.
■ Knowing that Kentucky is 33rd and Massachusetts is No. 1 does not show how near or far Kentucky is from the educational achievement of Massachusetts.
■ The index is biased toward primary and secondary education, with only two of the 12 indicators reflecting postsecondary education.
North Carolina was the only other state that was in the bottom 10 in 1990 that climbed out of that group with similar gains to Kentucky's, according to the study.
"Nonetheless, compared to our past and relative to the nation, these data show substantial education progress," the study said.
Childress stressed that the UK study shows Kentucky still has much work to do to improve its position. But the results also show that big gains can be made, he said.
Childress noted that the state with the biggest single improvement was South Dakota. It ranked 28th in 1990 — higher than Kentucky is now — but jumped 16 spots to 12th place nationally.
"We have to do something transformative if we're going to make these big gains," Childress said. "But it is possible."