Linda Blackford

So your kid’s school got a low rating in new system? Don’t freak out. Do this instead.

Let’s all take a deep breath.

Statewide test scores are out Tuesday morning, and in their umpteenth iteration, Kentucky’s scores still show that too many children — most of them poor or students of color — aren’t mastering basic elements of reading and math. For example, 40 percent of black elementary students scored at the novice level in reading. That is totally unacceptable.

The testing system holds schools accountable for teaching all kids, not just the best and brightest, and that’s a good thing. Some of Lexington’s most sought after schools lost stars in the rating system for achievement gaps. But these tests are one snapshot of our schools. They shouldn’t be used to vilify teachers, nor should they be used to jump on the school privatization bandwagon. That won’t help.

As Brigitte Blom Ramsey of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence points out: “Test scores do tell us how well a school is doing within their locus of control in helping students meet state standards in reading and math. What they don’t tell us are things we don’t measure: Is a school supporting students to problem solve, think critically or be creative? Do they have a positive climate, do they engage families?”

The Prichard Committee is starting to look more deeply at the influence of poverty rates on education, and how statewide economic policy might help schools help students. We know that standardized testing is greatly influenced by family income, and we know that research shows that between 20 percent to 33 percent of educational inequity can be solved through schools.

That’s not an excuse, but it is a prompt for more policy to improve Kentucky’s terrible poverty rates, right now 5th in the nation, despite some recent improvements, according to recent census data. We expect schools to solve all the problems that come with poverty, frequent moves, poor nutrition, trauma and more. Parents who are working two or three jobs to get by have a much harder time getting involved in their kids’ schools or helping with homework.

As hedge fund executive and former charter school advocate Nick Hanauer said in The Atlantic: “To be clear: We should do everything we can to improve our public schools. But our education system can’t compensate for the ways our economic system is failing Americans.”

Instead, parents should use these scores to look more deeply at their schools, and start to ask some questions:

If white students are performing well at your school, but black and Hispanic students are lagging behind them, what is the school doing to improve disparity? Are students improving from one year to the next? Let’s laud the schools with the best improvement, rather than the highest scores, which are usually correlated with the most high-income students. I mean, hooray for the five-star SCAPA at Bluegrass, but it is also the least economically diverse school in Fayette County.

If test scores are down at your school, how could that be related to other factors, such as family and student engagement? If teachers are simply teaching to the test, are bored and disengaged students showing that on test performance? One of the reasons that many people choose private school is that there’s less emphasis on testing and more emphasis on creative and engaged learning.

What can we as parents do for our school or other schools? Many need tutors to work with students for half an hour a week; many need more help with PTAs. We are all busy, but many hands can help.

More importantly, these test scores should get parents talking to their legislators with some hard questions:

Clearly, teachers in some of these schools need more training. Why has the General Assembly cut professional development funds?

The Kentucky Education Reform Act recognized the effects of poverty and created family resource centers at every school that could help families with basic needs. Why have those been defunded at so many schools? According to a story last year, state funding for the centers has fallen from $57 million in 2009 to $51.5 million in 2017.

Why has the legislature allowed Kentucky school funding, once a model in the nation for funding equity, to slip so far behind?

What are legislators doing to help improve Kentucky’s poverty rates? Have the most recent tax code changes helped or are they instead helping Kentucky’s wealthiest citizens?

How does the current political atmosphere — where the governor calls teachers thugs because they protested pension changes — help our students and schools? Does this have anything to do with the current ongoing teacher shortage?

Linda Blackford writes columns and commentary for the Herald-Leader.