Putting schools to the test; Much to like in new system, but shortcomings must be addressed

We hope Kentucky educators can mine loads of useful data from the new school assessments because the average parent or taxpayer who tries to drill down into the statistical murk will come away frustrated.

Also, Education Commissioner Terry Holliday and the state school board must quickly address two big concerns:

■ How can the new system drive schools to improve when their annual goals are set so low?

■ Why, when Kentucky graduates must compete globally, are we basing school performance standards not on the best schools in the world but the highest-scoring schools in Kentucky?

Before explaining our concerns, we must applaud the many good changes Kentucky has made since 2009. As the first state to adopt national standards in reading and math, Kentucky is already giving students richer, deeper, more rigorous content in the classroom.

Where the wheels start falling off is the new plan for grading schools. Again there's much to like, such as finally more accurately measuring dropout rates.

What's questionable is whether the new system will drive school improvement fast enough, especially in schools where only a few students are proficient in reading and math.

Even the lowest-performing schools, those scoring in the 20s on a 100-point scale, must improve by just 1 point by next year.

That's a snail's pace, especially if your child is stuck in an under-performing school.

As far as we can tell — and we admit, we're flummoxed by much of K-PREP — the pace of required improvement will pick up only a very little in the future, consigning too many kids to bad schools for too long.

Also, for schools that fall short, there are no consequences and state assistance for only a few.

In fairness, Holliday and the Department of Education had to develop a new accountability system on the cheap because the legislature threw out the old without providing any money to build the new. The state outsourced creation of the test that students take to Pearson, a multinational, for-profit company.

The process seemed to break down when it came to grading school performance. A decision was made to grade schools, not on any agreed upon criteria, but based on the scores of the top 30 percent in Kentucky.

School-level accountability was one of the things taxpayers got in 1990 in return for a penny sales tax increase to pay for education reform and equalize funding for poor districts.

You can't expect the public to pay more to expand early childhood education and make other improvements, as Kentucky must to compete, without also measuring and publishing the results of that spending in a way that people can understand and trust.

Kentucky's new system is still very much a work in progress, which leads to our final question for Holliday, the state school board and lawmakers: Will a state that pioneered education accountability settle for a system that is so confusing, user-hostile and lax as to render it irrelevant? Please, say no.

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