Kentucky has made tremendous progress in improving education for all children over the past several decades.

Education Commissioner Terry Holliday

Education Commissioner Terry Holliday

Today our state is seen as an education leader, in a large part due the passage of Senate Bill 1, and our drive and commitment to raise the bar for our students.

Yet, despite our successes, the release of student assessment data last week confirmed what we already knew — a majority of our schools fall short when it comes to meeting federal academic standards, and preparing their students to succeed in college or a career.

There is no doubt: Much more work is left to be done.

A critical part of this work will involve defining what we mean by proficient. In other words:

What score (or cut score) does a student need to get on a state test to be considered proficient?

Kentucky, like all states, controls its own student assessment system, including developing its own standards and setting its own cut scores.

Since 2003, however, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) has supported research that allows the comparison of the proficiency standards of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) with those set by individual states for federal No Child Left Behind testing. The latest report was recently released and is available here.

What did this year’s report tell us about Kentucky’s and other state’s assessments as compared to NAEP results?

  • In grade 4 reading, 35 states have proficiency cut scores that are below the basic cut score on NAEP. Fifteen states have proficiency cut scores between basic and proficient. Kentucky has the 17th-highest cut score on this comparison, and it is slightly below the basic level on NAEP.
  • In grade 8 reading, 16 states are below NAEP’s basic level, and 34 states are between basic and proficient on the NAEP scale. Kentucky ranks 12th among the states, and the Kentucky proficient level is between the NAEP basic and proficient levels.
  • In grade 4 mathematics, seven states have proficient cut scores below the NAEP basic level; one state (Massachusetts) has a proficient cut score at or above NAEP proficient cut score; and 42 states are between basic and proficient. Kentucky ranks 22nd and is between basic and proficient.
  • In grade 8 mathematics, Kentucky ranks 15th and is between basic and proficient. Massachusetts is the only state with proficient cut scores at or above the NAEP proficient level.

Kentucky’s cut scores for our state assessments are, for the most part, in the top third of states, and when compared to NAEP levels, our cut scores are between basic and proficient levels.

While this is better than many states, it is not where we want or need to be. 

As we implement the new accountability system, the Kentucky Board of Education (KBE) will set student performance levels for novice, apprentice, proficient and distinguished. The KBE will receive guidance and advice from many groups of stakeholders. Our National Technical Advisory Panel for Assessment and Accountability (NTAPPA) and School Curriculum, Accountability and Assessment Council (SCAAC) will play key roles.

My recommendation to the KBE will focus on establishing levels that are linked closely to college/career readiness. We have hired experts to establish these levels from 8th grade back to 3rd grade. Our high school end-of-course assessments already have these levels linked to PLAN and ACT results.

What does this mean to parents, students, teachers, principals, superintendents and the public?

They will see proficiency levels in Kentucky move from 70 percent or higher in many grade levels to proficiency levels more closely aligned to NAEP and college readiness results. In other words, scores may drop — much like when we changed the way we administered the ACT and began testing 100 percent of Kentucky public high school juniors.

Many states are moving in this direction. Recently, Tennessee took this major step. Virginia, Michigan, North Carolina, Georgia and others are moving to proficiency levels that predict college/career readiness.
This is the right thing to do for our children and their future. And it is the mandate of Senate Bill 1 — to raise the expectations for ALL Kentucky children and improve the chances that ALL Kentucky children receive the education that prepares them to survive and thrive in the ever-changing economy. Their and our state’s future depends on it.

That said, it is critical that while the percentage of proficient students may drop, we understand the reasons why. Of key importance will be to communicate these new standards and expectations to our communities and stakeholders, including the message that it would not be appropriate to compare results from the spring 2012 assessment to those from the 2011 assessment.

Now is the time to start the conversation at the state and local levels.