Ky.'s new education commissioner must reignite sense of urgency about teaching all kids

Kentucky's new Education Commissioner Stephen L. Pruitt should move quickly to reignite a sense of urgency about teaching all youngsters well.

The latest round of test scores and accountability measures, released last week, were not particularly good news, though we admit the welter of data that now makes up Kentucky's school accountability system usually leaves us more befuddled than enlightened. (Maybe it's just us, but we doubt that we are alone in our puzzlement.)

A few things did stand out:

■ The annual improvement goals are painfully modest, yet fewer schools achieved their goals in 2014-15 than in the previous year.

■ The overall score for high schools rose 1.5 points from the previous year, but the overall scores for elementary and middle schools declined 1.4 points and 2.1 points respectively.

■ Students in groups that have historically had achievement gaps — minorities, low income and those with disabilities or limited English proficiency — continue to lag behind their peers across multiple content areas and grade levels.

Analyzing the achievement gaps, Susan Weston, reporting on the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence's blog, found that Kentucky's high schools delivered academic proficiency for the students they serve best, those outside gap groups, at more than twice the rate that they delivered proficiency for black students, more than four times the rate for students with disabilities and more than six times the rate for students with limited English skills.

Thirteen years ago, Kentucky lawmakers shone a bright light on student groups trapped in perpetual underachievement. The legislature enacted a requirement that the Department of Education scrutinize and approve improvement plans for schools that twice miss targets for narrowing achievement gaps. That law and the scrutiny seem to have been forgotten.

Under the current accountability system, now in its third year, the scores schools give themselves for programs in which students no longer take state tests, such as the arts and writing, count as much or more than schools' success in teaching students in the gap groups.

The consequences of such incentives are hardly surprising: Schools are quickly moving toward giving themselves perfect program-review scores; it's as if the teacher handed out the test key and told students to grade their own exams. Meanwhile, the system that's supposed to hold schools accountable isn't delivering enough pressure to improve teaching for students in gap groups.

Anything that Pruitt and the state school board that finalized his contract Tuesday can do to push schools to close achievement gaps would be a great service to Kentucky's future. Likewise, for making the accountability system less convoluted.

The new data also provide some bright spots. The percent of high school graduates who tested ready for college or careers has risen from 47.2 in 2012, the first year for this measure, to 66.8 percent in 2015. (That's still about a third of graduates who leave with a diploma but under-prepared for the next phase of their lives.)

The number of districts and schools performing at the highest level is up.

And, as always, some schools in poor places are performing at high levels, debunking the notion that low-income kids can't be taught.

Kentucky can be proud that it has not dumbed down its testing to create an illusion of improvement as some states have.

And, in Lexington, Williams Wells Brown Elementary, branded last year as the state's lowest-performing elementary school, achieved a 19.2 point gain on a 100-point scale and was rated a "high progress" school.

Congratulations to all the students and educators who are working hard to do better.