The annual release of public school assessment data always provides parents, educators and education stakeholders with an objective measure of the academic progress being made by students and schools. There were some bright spots in Kentucky this year. We saw schools identified as some of the state’s lowest performing last year shed that designation this year.
Even more impressive, with a new Commissioner’s List, we are honoring 20 schools across Kentucky that demonstrated extraordinary levels of student growth at the elementary and middle school levels, and schools that did extraordinarily well with transition readiness at the high school level. These gains and achievements come only as the result of strong leadership and strategic investment of time and resources in key areas.
Unfortunately, an area for growth that we are not proud of is the many students performing well below grade level at the Novice performance level on state assessments. Novice is the lowest of four performance levels on Kentucky’s state tests. Scoring at the Novice level means students demonstrate minimal – if any – understanding of the academic content at their grade level. More plainly, it means students are in a state of academic emergency, requiring immediate, skilled academic intervention. Failure to provide such intervention will certainly result in students’ academic failure and hurt their chances of securing stable, rewarding employment.
More than 60,000 of Kentucky’s elementary and middle school students and nearly 1-in-4 of Kentucky’s high school students are in that state of academic emergency. It is an incredibly dangerous place for our children to be.
Beneath Kentucky’s statewide numbers of students in academic emergency are even more sobering statistics. At the elementary school level in reading, 26% of economically disadvantaged students and 40.2% of African American students are in academic emergency.
Leaders at the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) have been working diligently to create resources and tools designed to assist schools and districts in their efforts to reduce the number of students scoring at the Novice level and to improve overall student achievement. With Kentucky’s recent adoption of new academic standards, teachers and school and district leaders across the state are working to better understand the new standards and transition them into classroom teaching.
Arguably, the two most important school-level elements to reducing Kentucky’s Novice numbers are:
- Ensuring all students have access to a high-quality, Kentucky Academic Standards-aligned curriculum at grade level; and
- Ensuring all students have access to effective instruction at grade level.
The state tests students take at the end of the academic year assess whether they have understanding of the Kentucky Academic Standards at their grade level. If students have not received effective instruction in those standards at their grade level, there is little chance they will be able to demonstrate understanding of the academic content.
To that end, KDE’s tools and resources are geared toward building educators’ capacity to make critical curriculum decisions and provide effective standards-aligned instruction for each and every student. Fortunately, many Kentucky students already have access to high-quality curriculum and effective instruction, but too many have access to neither. Most troubling, more often than not it’s our most vulnerable learners who lack access to both.
A 2018 study from TNTP analyzed nearly 4,000 students in five diverse school systems and found that most students – especially economically disadvantaged students and students of color – spent the vast majority of their school days without four crucial resources:
- Grade-appropriate assignments;
- Strong instruction;
- Deep engagement; and
- Teachers with high expectations.
This study used a national sample of schools. Nevertheless, if we are honest, we know this to be true in many of Kentucky’s schools. Many economically disadvantaged students and students of color in Kentucky are graduating from high school, often with good grades, but without the minimum skills necessary to be successful in college or in the workforce.
In October I convened a statewide task force charged with making recommendations on improving the quality of curriculum in Kentucky’s public schools. My expectation is that the task force will assess the state’s current curriculum strengths and needs, consider possibilities for policy and practice, with an eye toward equity, and make recommendations for strengthening our system.
In Kentucky, most education equity conversations center on funding, and these are very important discussions. Unfortunately, however, our equity conversations seldom get past funding and move to the most important education equity conversation of all – students’ access to high-quality curriculum and effective instruction. Too often that access is differentiated based on students’ background.
The systemic flaws that allow and perpetuate such inequity must be changed. Unless we acknowledge and boldly address those flaws, making policy and practice decisions that truly put students’ needs first, students in academic emergency will remain on the fast track to poverty, dependency and prison.
From analyzing our own assessment data, we know that we must act quickly and urgently to provide students with the quality education they deserve and need to thrive. We understand that there are challenges – from funding to staff shortages – from district to district. But we also know that that if a school changes nothing else except adult expectations, approach, behavior and actions to ensure kids have access to high-quality instruction, curriculum and materials, kids will respond. Students’ academic and behavioral outcomes improve. Schools and teachers across Kentucky prove that it can be done.