Kentucky’s academic standards will undergo a second series of revisions and schools will begin receiving new report cards that should provide more clarity on grades under a new statewide education plan.

The plan, drafted to meet guidelines for a 2015 federal law called the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), is supposed to hold schools accountable for the quality of education provided as well as ensure that achievement gaps among demographic groups are closed. Each state was required to turn in an ESSA plan to the Department of Education by September.

In the Bluegrass State, officials are focused on improving education in kindergarten through 12th grade so that students are prepared for the challenges they will encounter after high school either in postsecondary schools or for jumpstarting a career. Officials are still waiting for full federal sign-off on their plan, but they have already begun mapping out what needs to be done to improve education.

“We have set aggressive goals for raising student performance and cutting the achievement gap in half in the next 13 years,” Kentucky Commissioner of Education Stephen Pruitt said. “To achieve those goals, we have developed an implementation plan that focuses on K-3 literacy, individual instruction and assessment, diploma requirements, student success in postsecondary, and social and emotional wellbeing that leverage the key elements of ESSA and our new accountability system to ensure all Kentucky students are ready for the next level of learning and graduate from high school prepared for their chosen path.”

ESSA is the first major federal overhaul to education since No Child Left Behind was enacted in 2001. It required schools to administer annual assessments as part of an effort to create measurable goals, but the law withered under criticism that educators — and federal grant dollars — became too focused on test scores. ESSA replaced the 2001 law and marks the first time that the federal government is giving up authority over low- and underperforming schools to state officials.

As with any major shift in national policy, ESSA has its champions and detractors.

Michael J. Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, calls states’ responses to ESSA a “compliance exercise” and said most states wrote plans in a way that they won’t require federal approval to make changes later.

“Our expectations should be relatively modest,” Petrilli said. “I don’t see much in these plans that’s calling for dramatic, sweeping transformations of education systems.” He added that states need to address how they will fix chronically underperforming schools.


Strategic Vision, Nuanced Indicators

Kentucky officials have outlined four immediate steps in their implementation plan: review academic standards, including math and English; develop a new online school report card to include accountability changes; establish state goals with concrete benchmarks to measure student progress; determine what changes will be necessary in annual assessments to reflect new priorities. The new school report card will be a “dashboard” format that looks at several categories like graduation rates and chronic absenteeism. Both the dashboard format and those two categories have been favored in an overwhelming number of ESSA plans that education officials say will give more detailed information to parents and stakeholders so they can better analyze school environments.

The third step in Kentucky’s plan — goals — has proven to be a challenge for other states. Bellwether Education Partners, along with the Collaborative for Student Success, has published peer reviews of the 50 states and District of Columbia ESSA plans. Reviewers frequently noted that goals were not aligned with a strategic state vision. They were pleased, however, with Kentucky’s goals.

“Kentucky’s plan includes a clear vision for the state, centered on preparing all students with the knowledge and skills to support their college or career choice upon graduation from high school,” reviewers stated, noting that the plan looks ahead to 2030 with “significant increases” in achievement for all students. “The state should be commended for establishing ambitious goals based on the current system and supporting those goals with data.”


Continued Progress

The gold standard of student assessment is the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as NAEP. For years, NAEP scores have shown a less rosy picture of student progress than states have posted using their own data. A 2016 project called The Honesty Gap provided a detailed analysis of the discrepancies between each state and the federal data.

The analysis found that for the 2013-2014 school year, Kentucky had an 18-point discrepancy in fourth-grade reading and a 15-point discrepancy in eighth-grade math between the federal and state data. That’s a significant improvement from the 32-point gap in eighth-grade math the state had in 2011.

Kentucky’s focus in its ESSA plan on continuing to close the gaps between student subgroups is welcome news to state education advocates who like what they see in the plan but, like parents and other stakeholders, are awaiting details.

Brigitte Blom Ramsey, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, said the ultimate goal is that students graduate with a “meaningful” high school diploma.

“Meaningful, to us, would mean that the diploma is an indication that a student has mastered skills that are important as they move into the workforce or into the university level,” Blom Ramsey said. “Academically, are they meeting benchmarks for readiness for college success? Do they have the 21st-century skills that indicate they’re really ready to take their next steps after college and into a career?”

Federal officials have until next month to finalize their comments and feedback on Kentucky’s ESSA plan.