Students Aren’t Singing the Blues in the Bluegrass State Since They’re Doing Better Academically

In a new analysis, the Bluegrass Institute’ Richard Innes points to ACT scores given to all 11th grade public school students as the latest evidence to abandon Kentucky’s rigorous academic standards.

Innes claims that, “No matter what testing series is examined, the Bluegrass State always shows serious achievement gap problems,” and points to “chronic achievement gaps for whites and blacks.” The analysis compared 2012 data – the first year higher standards and assessments were aligned – against 2016 data and finds that gaps in English, reading and math are “substantial for both years.”

As we’ve noted before, Kentucky’s persistent achievement gap is an issue state education leaders have taken seriously and continue to address. Kentucky Superintendent Stephen Pruitt identified achievement, equity, and integrity as the three pillars of the state’s education framework:

“Ensuring all students achieve at high levels has been an earmark for Kentucky for years… In short, all students achieving at high levels is not just a nice tag line, it is a reachable goal with a big payoff for our students and Kentucky.”

As Pruitt and other experts (both in and outside of Kentucky) point out, many factors contribute to performance disparities, and the ACT assessment is only one measure of student performance.

Kentucky was the first state to adopt higher education standards through the Common Core, and over the past six years, the state has achieved big academic improvements. In 2015, Kentucky’s then-Education Commissioner Terry Holliday noted improvements in college-readiness and proficiency rates “show without a doubt that we are making progress.”

It’s important to note the ACT results provide only a singular snapshot of academic performance, and, in fact, all of Kentucky’s students, including African Americans, are doing better under higher academic standards. From 2012 to 2015, African American 5th graders saw an 11 percent increase in statewide assessment scores while their white peers saw just a slightly better increase of 12 percent.

The latest ACT results should reinforce Kentucky policymakers’ commitment to high education, not signal a retreat, as Innes suggests. Writing on the achievement gap, the Prichard Committee calls on state leaders to “set high expectations for each student” and to invest in strategies that ensure “each student engages in challenging work that aligns to the state’s standards.”

The Prichard Committee analysis adds that Kentucky should continue with education standards comparable to other states rather than “setting its own, lower benchmarks that fail to set expectations for students at an adequate level relative to their peers in other states.”

Minority communities remain strongly supportive of high standards and high-quality assessments. National Urban League president Marc Morial wrote previously that high academic expectations, like Kentucky’s, “will not address every concern about our education system, but equitable implementation will help pave the way to ensuring that all children have a fair shot at a high-quality education.”

Overwhelmingly, states that have made a commitment to rigorous standards and meaningful assessments are seeing gains in student performance. “Although it’s too early to plant a flag, initial results indicate…the original promise of the Common Core is working,” Jim Cowen wrote this month.

To ensure all students have access to an education that fully prepares them for the challenges of college or a career, Kentucky leaders should continue to support rigorous, comparable education standards. To turn back would only create disruption and undo the groundwork Kentucky is laying.