It was the test of times; it was the worst of times.

With a row of colorful, explanatory pie charts lined up behind her, Jefferson County Public Schools Superintendent Donna Hargens opted for an upbeat take on today’s grim news. Today, of course, marked the release of test scores showing how the district stacked up under a new accountability system dubbed, “Unbridled Learning.”

“We did better than 23 percent of districts in Kentucky,” she told media, district staff and community leaders gathered at McFerran Elementary for a press conference.

Sure, one could also say that about 75 percent of Kentucky public schools are performing better than JCPS, but one can’t afford cynicism when academic performance has dipped so dramatically.

Not only did some schools experience as much as a 30-percentage point drop in math, reading and writing scores, but more than 100 of JCPS’ 136 tested schools were categorized as “needs improvement.” In other words, their scores were below the 70th percentile in performance, hence they need improvement.

(Hargens did tell her audience that under the old accountability system, JCPS ranked in the 9th percentile when compared to districts around the state. So this year’s standing could be seen as an improvement. But the state can’t confirm that ranking. This is the first year they’ve ranked districts and schools. In the past, some districts performed their own analysis on state rankings.)

The day’s sobering news comes as no surprise. The district and the Kentucky Department of Education have been blanketing media with warnings that this year’s scores were expected to plummet. JCPS even created a website devoted to the topic.

Kentucky was the first state among 46 to adopt new, tougher standards known as Common Core. The tests kids took last year, and will continue to take, are heavy on questions that make students prove their knowledge, not just pick the right answer.

Here’s a rundown of some results according to data:

* Roughly 42 percent of elementary school students, 38 percent of middle school students and just over 50 percent of high school students were proficient and distinguished in reading/English. (While the new tests differ greatly from those completed in previous years, making it a little hard to make a fair comparison, reading scores hovered over 60 percent for all three levels last year.)

* Math scores? Roughly 35 percent of elementary school students performed well (proficient and distinguished), middle school sat at 32 percent, and high schools had 46 percent of students test well.

* A bright spot? Hargens announced that JCPS’ college and career readiness score has grown over the last year from 36 percent to 45, just under the state average of 47. JCPS’s goal for next year is to have close to 52 percent of students college and career ready. (In a nutshell, this means the student has scored proficiently on one of three college entrance exams — for example the ACT — or taken a test that deems them ready for military or vocational life.)

Under the new accountability system, each school and district received a score from 1-100 based on a number of factors. For example, in high schools, 20 points are available for each of the following categories: achievement, college and career readiness, growth, graduation rates and something called “GAP” scores. These involve test scores for populations that have traditionally shown a gap in achievement when compared to white, well-to-do students. These groups include minority, low-income, disabled and English language learners.

JCPS received a score of 50.8. The state average was 55.

Many schools have applauded the “growth” piece in the new accountability system, particularly those that have traditionally struggled with reaching federal education benchmarks, the hope being that measuring growth would give credit to schools for achieving the difficult task of making gains in test scores.

But a look at how schools stacked up shows little change in old patterns, particularly in middle and high schools. DuPont Manual and Male ranked in the 99th and 98th percentile for Kentucky schools respectively. Meanwhile, Valley High School, the Academy at Shawnee and Iroquois High School ranked in the 1st percentile. Knight Middle School ranked in the 3rd percentile. Previously these schools, along with 14 others, were labeled as persistently low-achieving or PLA schools. Now, they’re called “priority” schools.

Dewey Hensley, JCPS’ chief academic officer, says the district has noticed that elementary schools seem to have experienced more of a shuffling of the deck, so to speak, with traditionally well-performing schools now falling in the ranks. But he points out that with 89 elementary schools (as compared to 19 high schools) there’s more room for fluctuation.

“We’re trying to address that by really getting into the schools and providing the support that they need,” he told LEO.

For example, the district recently assigned assistant principals to elementary schools; with the goal being those individuals will free up administrative time and allow for more attention spent on assisting teachers.

With this new “Unbridled Learning” model comes a host of new bureaucratic terms, like “focus school.” This is a school that has minority, low-income or disabled students scoring significantly below their peers. Or a high school can earn this title if their graduation rate has been less than 60 percent for two consecutive years. Ballard High School and Crosby Middle School were deemed “proficient” based on overall academic achievement but were still labeled as focus schools.

Before the press conference closed, Hensley and Hargens ensured the audience that many new strategies are in place to improve JCPS. One being student response teams that will address the social, emotional and academic needs of struggling children.

And, of course, came the plentiful reminders that these new, challenging standards may feed a cycle of negative headlines, but ultimately the hope is that JCPS’s 95,000 students will benefit from learning in a district that’s attempting to make them more prepared for the real world.

In next week’s LEO we’ll take you inside a school as they discover how these scores weigh on its reputation as a low-performer.

One Comment

  1. Frederick
    Posted May 15, 2013 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

    Enjoy your blog )
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