LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Kentucky Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis is optimistic that lawmakers will fix a definition for struggling schools that ran afoul of the Every Student Succeeds Act and jeopardized federal funding for schools across the state.
But whether that change will pass muster with the U.S. Department of Education isn't a certainty.
"Frankly, when we submit a state plan to the U.S. Department of Education, we kind of hold our breath and wait and see what happens," Lewis told WDRB News Wednesday. "You always get questions, you always get concerns, and with every state, there's always a degree of back-and-forth."
The issue came to light in a letter Lewis wrote to state school superintendents on Monday. A new law passed during this year's legislative session changed how schools are identified for targeted support and improvement, or TSI.
The state identified 418 TSI schools, 64 of them from Jefferson County Public Schools, last year based on K-PREP results that showed groups of students performing at the same level as or worse than students in the lowest 5 percent of schools for two consecutive years. However, lawmakers added a caveat this year that those schools must also be among the bottom 10 percent in Kentucky before qualifying for TSI.
States get some flexibility in how they identify TSI schools, but that criterion was too restrictive under ESSA, Lewis said.
"The challenge, the U.S. Department of Education said, is that precludes a school whose performance is above that 10 percent from ever being flagged for targeted support and improvement , even if there are significant gaps between the performance of student groups," he said.
Without federal approval of the state's education plan, Lewis said Kentucky risked losing federal school funding under ESSA.
The state and federal education departments negotiated an agreement that delays TSI identifications until next fall, giving the Kentucky Department of Education and General Assembly time to come up with a resolution on how the state will determine which schools qualify for TSI.
"We'll just continue to work together to put something into statute that the General Assembly feels good about, that our schools feel good about, that our department feels good about and that complies with federal law," Lewis said.
Although no schools will be categorized as TSI when K-PREP scores are released in the coming weeks, some will be identified for additional targeted support and improvement, or ATSI.
That's a new designation under the law passed by lawmakers this year, but Lewis said it's essentially the second tier of TSI that was already on the books.
Most of the 418 TSI schools showed enough progress on last school year's K-PREP exams to leave the designation, he said.
"Of the 418 TSI schools we identified last year, there's only a few that don't meet the exit criteria and will continue to be ATSI schools this year," he said.
Senate President Pro Tem David Givens, who sponsored the legislation that altered how schools are identified for TSI, said based on conversations between legislative staff and federal officials, he and other lawmakers were confident that his Senate Bill 175 complied with ESSA.
Lawmakers are looking to "strike a balance" between narrowly defining how schools are identified for TSI while also ensuring that schools with wide achievement gaps between student groups get the help they need.
"We want to narrowly define it, but we also want to leave it broad enough that any school that should fall into that category will fall there," said Givens, R-Greensburg, "Their concern … is that we have too narrowly defined it."
Still, Givens said federal rejection of the state's education plan based on changes made through SB 175 were "no more frustrating than working through any of the legislative processes that we deal with."
"You certainly hope to do the best you can do given the information you have to act on it," he said. "That's what we did in this case."
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