LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Student test scores in Jefferson County Public Schools declined during the 2014-15 year and the district's graduation rate remained the same as last year, while the number of students considered college and career ready increased by about 2 percent.

The new data, released Thursday by the Kentucky Department of Education, shows that after three consecutive years of posting gains, only 73 of the district's 138 tested schools met their annual performance goal set by the state – down from 96 last year.

And while nine of the district's 18 schools that are among the lowest performing in Kentucky could have shed the stigmatizing label of “priority school,” only one school -- Waggener High -- did well enough to exit that status.

Three more schools -- Roosevelt-Perry Elementary, Byck Elementary and the middle school at Moore Traditional are being identified as priority schools for the first time. That designation means the schools will join 17 others in JCPS that considered to be among the lowest performing in the state.

“We are analyzing the data in collaboration with our principals to figure out and diagnose what the schools need to do in order to address these drops,” said Dewey Hensley, JCPS chief academic officer. “I’m not pleased in knowing that there are children out there who aren’t as academically strong as they need to be.”

[SCORES: To see how your child's school fared, click on this link.]

Superintendent Donna Hargens says the district seems to have reached a plateau with test scores and that success over the past few years appears to have leveled.

 “We have come far up a very tall mountain; however, we still have a long and steep climb ahead of us to reach the peak, so it may be somewhat slower going at this point,” she said.

Half of JCPS students not proficient in math, reading

The new data shows that less than half of the district’s elementary, middle and high school students are not proficient in math and are not reading on grade level.

48 percent of elementary students, 46 percent of middle-schoolers and 49 percent of high-schoolers scored proficient or better in reading, compared with last year's rates of 49 percent, 45 percent and 51 percent, respectively.

Math proficiency rose slightly at the elementary level – from 47 percent last year to 48 percent this year – and also at the high school level – from 37 percent to 39 percent – but dropped from 37 percent to 35 percent at the middle school level.

Perhaps more troubling – the district’s low-income and minority students continue to lag behind their peers across multiple content areas and grade levels.

“We want every single student to be successful,” Hensley said. “When we say all children -- all means all.”

After meeting its graduation and college and career readiness goals for the first time in 2013-14, the district missed both goals in 2014-15. 

JCPS’ graduation rate remained 79 percent, the same as last year. In addition, 63 percent of the district's students are considered college and career ready – up from 61 percent last year.

The district now has 18 “Schools of Distinction,” meaning that they are among the highest -performing elementary, middle and high schools in the state. That is up from just three schools in 2013.

Eight schools – Lowe, Luhr, Mill Creek, Norton, Zachary Taylor and Portland elementaries, Farnsley Middle School and The Brown School -- made at least a one-point gain across all subject areas tested.

But seven schools either stayed the same or made no gains – Auburndale, Coleridge-Taylor, Dunn, Frayser, Gutermuth and Roosevelt-Perry elementaries and the middle school at the Academy @ Shawnee.

Statewide results ‘relatively flat’

Across Kentucky, overall student performance on state tests remained relatively flat in the past year.

However, the percentage of students scoring proficient has increased in nearly every subject and at every grade level as compared to 2012 -- the first year of the state's new accountability and testing system, called Unbridled Learning.

“While we would like to see big gains in achievement every year, it is not uncommon to see some ups and downs from year to year,” said Interim Kentucky Education Commissioner Kevin Brown. “Overall, we are moving in the right direction from where we started.”

Brown did note that the number of Kentucky’s students graduating from high school and considered college/career-ready continues to increase.

In 2015, the college/career readiness rate jumped to 67 percent – up from 63 percent last year and 54 percent in 2013. The four-year graduation rate is up slightly from 87.5 percent in 2014 to 87.9 percent this year.

“Kentucky schools are to be congratulated for their continued progress on graduating more students with the skills and knowledge they will need to succeed in the 21st century,” Brown said.

At the state level, 54 percent of elementary and middle school students and 56 percent of high schoolers are reading on grade level, while less than half in all grade levels are proficient in math.

Unbridled Learning has five main components – achievement, gap, growth, college and career readiness and graduation rate.

District scores are ranked in order, while individual schools are ranked in order by level – elementary, middle and high. In addition, schools and districts are classified as distinguished, proficient or needs improvement.

JCPS 2015 High School Test Scores
JCPS 2015 Middle School Test Scores
JCPS 2015 Elementary School Test Scores

Priority schools

Schools are placed in priority status as a result of a 2010 law that called for the Kentucky Department of Education to identify the state's lowest-performing schools and outline a range of interventions aimed at turning them around.

The interventions include: replacing the principal and site-based decision-making council, replacing more than half the faculty, closing the school and transferring its students to higher-performing schools or restarting the schools under the management of a private or nonprofit operator.

Over the past five years, 18 schools in Jefferson County (36 across Kentucky) have been identified as priority schools for having chronically low test scores. During that time, the district has received more than $35 million in federal grant money to help turn them around.

Nine schools -- The Academy @ Shawnee, Doss High, Fairdale High, Fern Creek High, Iroquois High, Southern High, Valley High, Waggener High and Western Middle -- had each met their annual goals for the last two years and were on track to no longer be labeled a “persistently low-achieving” school.

But Thursday’s results show that only Waggener was able to shed that label.

Principal Katy Zeitz said while she couldn’t share specific details about the scores with her staff on Wednesday, she was able to tell them some good news.

“We are excited to be able to shed that priority title, the persistently low achieving title,” she said. “I know my teachers are relieved because it gives you affirmation that the things we are doing are getting positive results for our students. That feels good – it feels really good.”

Zeitz said “it’s no easy task to get this type of work accomplished.”

“We have students who are already academically behind or have barriers to learning, complications in their lives that make learning in a timely fashion difficult,” she said. “All of our students have capacity to learn at high levels, sometimes it just takes a little extra time.”

District officials say that while school and district scores are being released Thursday, individual student test scores won't be mailed to parents until the end of October.

Reporter Antoinette Konz covers K-12 education for WDRB News. She can be reached at 502-585-0838 or @tkonz on Twitter.

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