JCPS test scores show little progress, achievement gap widens among student groups

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Student test scores in Jefferson County Public Schools for the 2015-16 year have bounced back from the plateau the district saw the previous year, but a grim fact remains: more than half of the district’s students are still not performing on grade level in reading and math.

The new data, released Thursday by the Kentucky Department of Education, also shows that only 66 of the district's 139 tested schools met their annual performance goal set by the state – down from 74 schools in 2014-15 and 96 schools in 2013-14.

And although JCPS improved in three of the five scoring categories under the state's Unbridled Learning Accountability System, a heavier weight this year on the achievement gap and student growth – as well as a slight drop in overall achievement – kept JCPS from meeting its target. The district's score declined slightly from 52.2 in 2015 to 52.1 in 2016.

"I am excited because we did move past that plateau we saw last year, but there still needs to be progress made," said Dena Dossett, the chief of data management, planning and evaluation for JCPS. "While a lot of our students have made gains, we still have a lot of students who are behind."

Superintendent Donna Hargens agreed, saying the results serve as a reminder that "we must continue focusing our efforts in a strategic way."

"Our teachers and principals did an amazing job breaking through the plateau," she said. "We are higher than we were two years ago. Our continued focus will be on increased achievement."

Kentucky Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt called Jefferson County's scores "concerning" and said both the district and the state need to "make sure we are focusing on the right things."

"They have the biggest chunk of our population so in a lot of ways, so goes Jefferson County, so goes Kentucky," Pruitt said during an embargoed media briefing on the scores Wednesday. "Frankly, we've got to have the real strong belief that the data is not good enough. We've got to push."

When asked if JCPS leadership is able to handle the work the needs to be done, Pruitt noted that his staff, under his orders, has been conducting an onsite management review of the district.

Pruitt said he's waiting on parts of the review to be completed before being able to make any recommendations or decisions.

"We’ve got to make sure we really have an eye toward transparency, an eye toward opportunity for all of those kids," he said.

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

Priority Schools

Another point of concern in Jefferson County: three of the district's 19 priority schools – Knight Middle School, Valley High School and the Academy @ Shawnee – could have shed that stigmatizing label, but they were unable to do so and still remain among the lowest performing in Kentucky.

Dossett said Wednesday that JCPS will seek an appeal and ask the state to consider exiting Valley from priority status.

In order to exit, schools must meet their annual goals for three consecutive years, no longer be identified as being in the lowest five percent in the state and score at or above an 80 percent graduation rate for three consecutive years, according to new regulations that took effect in June 2015.

"Valley has met their goal for four consecutive years, is out of the lowest five percent based on their overall score, and has a graduation rate of 79.8," Dossett said. "We are going to ask them to consider using the same criteria for exiting that was in place when schools entered priority status, which was a 70 percent graduation rate."

Dossett added it's the same criteria that was applied to Fern Creek High School, which entered priority status the same year as Valley, but was able to exit last year following an appeal by the district.

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.

However, no new priority schools were identified this year, due to the fact that the state will be switching to a new accountability model next year. Officials said it would be unfair to identify new priority schools under one accountability system and hold them accountable under a new system.

Had there been a list, district officials say Maupin Elementary School would have been on it. The number of Maupin students scoring proficient or higher in reading dropped from 17.9 percent last year to 12.8 percent this year, while math proficiency fell from 17 percent to 8.9 percent.

"Without a doubt, they would have been a priority school this year," said Marco Munoz, the district's director of priority schools. "Maupin is going to require a pretty strong turnaround effort. One of the first things I am going to do is get into the instructional framework and monitor how the instruction there is being implemented."

Munoz said the district must "work harder" to help its lowest performing schools, some of which have proficiency levels in the single digits.

"Putting in place comprehensive support is hard," he said. "We need our central office administrators to have a sense of urgency with these schools and develop differentiated support."

Munoz noted that 11 of the district's priority schools met their state goals (up from just seven schools last year) and that Olmsted North met its goal for the first time since being named a priority school. 

In addition, Roosevelt Perry Elementary School -- a school that was added to the priority list last year and is the subject of turnaround efforts -- met all of its goals this year.

Achievement gap increases

The new data shows the overall percentage of JCPS students considered proficient in reading and math increased from 44.4 to 46.2 percent last year and that 63.4 percent of students were considered college and career ready, up from 63 percent in 2014-15.

All of the district's individual student groups, except limited English speaking students, increased their proficiency rates in combined reading and math, but they still lag behind the state average.

Perhaps the most troubling of all the scores is that JCPS' low-income and minority students continue to lag behind their peers across multiple content areas and grade levels.

Indeed, the district's achievement gap between white and black students increased to 29.4 percent this year from 28.4 percent last year. The data shows that just over 58 percent of white students scored proficient in reading and math, while only 29 percent of black students did. 

Pruitt noted that the achievement gap is not just a problem in Jefferson County. He says it has been a struggle to reduce the achievement gaps for students in groups that have historically lagged behind their peers across multiple content areas and grade levels.

"We need to be honest with ourselves about the huge achievement and opportunity gaps that have persisted in our schools for far too long," Pruitt said. "We need to take collective ownership of this problem and undertake a culture change at KDE, in our schools and districts, and in our communities.”

JCPS’ four-year graduation rate increased from 79 percent to 80.1 percent, breaking the 80 percent mark for the first time. District officials say 6,108 students graduated in 2015-16, which is 164 more graduates than the previous year.

In addition, 63.4 percent of the district's students are considered college and career ready – up slightly from 63 percent last year, but reflecting a 32 percent increase since 2010. Overall, 3,872 of the district's students were college/career ready in 2015-16, which is 124 more students than the 2014-15 year.

The district also has 13 “Schools of Distinction,” meaning that they are among the highest -performing elementary, middle and high schools in the state. Those schools include Brandeis, Farmer, Greathouse Shryock, Hite, Laukhuf, Norton, Stopher, Tully, Wheeler and Wilder elementary schools, the Academy @ Shawnee middle school and duPont Manual and Louisville Male high schools.

“We have proficient students in all of our schools,” Hargens said.  “Among this year’s shining stars are students at Jacob Elementary, Western Middle School and Fairdale High School, who are progressing at well above the state’s average growth rate."

Students at Western Middle -- one of the district's priority schools -- posted an 8 percent gain in reading and social studies scores, an 13 percent gain in writing scores and an 18 percent gain in math scores.

Kym Rice, the school's principal, said Wednesday she and her staff were "very intentional about everything we did last year."

"We didn't talk much about testing, we were just trying to get our kids what they needed to improve," she said. "We were able to get some instructional coaches and used some extended day funds to help our kids after school and increased collaboration among teachers."

"I was really surprised at our math scores," Rice said, adding that for most of the year, her teachers didn't use textbooks.

"We focused on teaching the standards and using whatever tools and resources we felt were best," she said.

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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