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State Test Scores Skewed Due to Pandemic, NKY Education Leaders Say

Kentucky released Wednesday morning new data related to state testing in schools, ACT results, and other metrics in what education leaders at the state and local level are cautioning are skewed due to the disruption to academics brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Northern Kentucky school district leaders expressed disappointment in the results while highlighting bright spots, but also emphasizing that the 2020-21 academic year was atypical.
“We knew these results would not be what we wanted to see, but the previous two school years saw extreme challenges,” said Ky. Commissioner of Education Jason E. Glass. “We can use this information to address the gaps caused by COVID-19 disruptions and provide our students with the supports they need to be successful. This is one of a variety of tools our districts use on a regular basis to gauge where our students are.”
State assessments were administered in Kentucky last spring. The Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) applied for and received a waiver from accountability and certain reporting requirements by the U.S. Department of Education (USED).
Due to the federal waiver from accountability, school accountability indicators and ratings (i.e., stars) are not part of the 2020-2021 reporting or public release.
School identification will resume in the fall of 2022.
While state assessment administration was required federally, KDE accepted flexibilities offered by USED. Testing windows were expanded and the administration of assessments normally given earlier in the year was moved to the end of the school year. Additionally, the annual statewide assessment was shorter than in previous years.
Shortening the assessment made administration more feasible and prioritized time for in-person learning and instruction in the classroom, KDE said.
Historically, 95% to 98% of Kentucky students participate in state testing. Due to the impact of COVID-19, participation rates were much lower across all students as a group and specific student demographic groups.
KDE stated that participation rates among students taking the state assessment were so low that caution should be used against drawing conclusions about student performance.
The state department of education also said that direct comparisons of assessment data from previous year would not be appropriate because of the learning disruptions.
Aside from the ACT and the graduation rate for each high school and district, KDE did not release trends and comparison data for public consumption.
In previous year, the state assessment was known as K-PREP (the Kentucky Performance Rating for Educational Progress) but this year was changed to the Kentucky Summative Assessment (KSA).
The tests were developed by Kentucky teachers and align with the Kentucky Academic Standards in each content area, KDE said.
All students in grades 3 through 8 and grade 10 take reading and mathematics tests in the spring of each year. The other subjects are tested once per grade level (science in grades 4, 7 and 11 and on-demand writing in grades 5, 8 and 11.
Social studies was field tested at grades 5, 8 and 11 during the 2020-2021 school year. No performance data for social studies werre reported.

Local education leaders react to data

In Covington Independent Public Schools, Superintendent Alvin Garrison said that there were bright spots in improvements in graduation rates among black and English-learner students.

The district's statement to RCN revealed that it was "not surprised by the decline in the scores overall."

“Like many districts, our students struggled during the Covid-19 pandemic,’’ Garrison said. “The reality is COVID-19 impacts poverty-stricken areas more so than others. We were not prepared to have school during a pandemic. It was a daily challenge. We did not have the infrastructure to address virtual needs. Early on, we did not have computers and internet access for all our students. We were playing catch up."

The City of Covington, Cincinnati Bell, and other partners worked last year to increase access to broadband internet across the city in response to students' challenges.  

"We are thankful that the city helped with getting hot spots in the community,’ Garrison said.

In the meantime, the district is working to address what has been called "learning loss" brought on by the pandemic with an extended summer session and after-school programs.

With school back in session full-time this year as opposed to a hybrid in-person and virtual model adopted last school year, students are seeing more classroom time, five days a week instead of two. The district is also providing more one-on-one help with students and parents, Garrison said.

“We are disappointed in the scores, but we know our students can and will do better," he said.

The message from Newport Independent Schools was similar.

"The effects of COVID had an unfortunate impact on our students," Newport Superintendent Tony Watts said. "We didn’t test 100% of our kids so the data is skewed. While saying that, we still aren’t happy with the results. We are working diligently to close the COVID gap and help all or our students improve."

Dayton Independent Schools Superintendent Jay Brewer also echoed that sentiment, saying that the district finds "a lot of good news, some good-to-know news, and some news that will help us set goals and develop plans for this school year."


"Our strongest results are reflected in an across-the-board growth in district writing scores," Brewer said. "We implemented new writing strategies last year and are excited to see significant gains in this area. The process of writing is a great reflection of our students’ ability to communicate and think critically. We are proud of our growth."

Brewer also highlighted the middle school grades as "an area of strength" saying that the district is seeing "some of our best data coming from these grade levels."

"We are excited about the work occurring in our middle school as this is such an important transition phase for our students," Brewer said.

The district is also seeing ongoing improvements in math scores, he said. 

"An area of opportunity throughout our district lies in ways to improve literacy," Brewer said. "Partnerships, grants, and new programming are already underway to bring about improvement in this area. We are proud of the work being done by our students, staff and families to Inspire, Engage and Grow."

In Bellevue Independent Schools, Superintendent Robb Smith said that the district has been singularly focused on taking care of students and families over the past eighteen months of the pandemic.

"Enrollment is up as it has become clear that we are about more than academics," Smith said. "The larger the sample size, standardized test results are nothing more than an affirmation of economics. Whether we are praised or vilified for results, both are incorrect. Our teaching staff is second to none; they know our kids’ strengths and areas of growth and work tirelessly in pursuit of excellence.

"Our kids are more than numbers."

In Ludlow Independent Schools, Superintendent Michael Borchers also noted how different the recent school years have been.

"It’s not possible to compare these scores to past years since all students statewide didn’t take the test, and it was obviously a very unusual instructional year for everyone," Borchers said. "We have been relying on our own interim assessment data that captures each student’s individual growth. We use this data to drive our instruction and interventions. Based on the school report card, we are extremely proud of our high graduation rate, which reflects our ultimate goal for our students."

Beyond the urban school districts, the suburban schools also faced similar challenges and are reviewing the skewed results of this year's school report card.

"There are some areas where our students excelled and brought their scores of Proficient and Distinguished up to the impressive heights we have come to expect from Beechwood students. In other cases, we know that there is a lot of work to be done," a news release from Beechwood Independent Schools in Ft. Mitchell said.

“Our teachers have done an exceptional job educating students through hybrid, virtual, and face to face learning. What these K-PREP scores show us is that the most important place for a Beechwood student to be is face to face with their teacher every day of the school year,” said Justin Kaiser, principal at Beechwood High School. “These test scores show us that virtual and hybrid schedules are not the ideal settings for our students; they need to be in a classroom with a teacher to interact with their peers and ask questions for clarification.”

“It is great to discuss curriculum again and game-plan some ways for us to grow students academically in innovative ways,” said Zach Ashley, Beechwood Elementary principal. “We want to spend our time moving forward, not worrying about what happened in the past. It is what our students want and what they need. We have a plan to make up any areas of academic need, but our focus is moving forward.”

Kenton County Schools noted that the new data released Wednesday would not be usable to compare student achievement, but could still be used as a "temperature check" to address student learning.
The district pointed to its bright spots, increases in distinguished and proficient scores for on-demand writing, testing showing that 71.7% of pre-K students are kindergarten ready, and increases in levels for English-learner students moving towards exiting "EL" status. The top 10% of the district's ACT scores yielded a composite of 28.8 out of 36, the district noted.
Similarly, Campbell County Schools celebrated its successes in spite of the challenging climate.

"Although we endured a very  difficult school year, our students performed well. There are always areas for improvement and our  principals have already begun evaluating those opportunities," Superintendent David Rust said. "It is also noteworthy that due to the unique nature of our synchronous/hybrid instruction last year, our testing participation rates were much lower than they have been in previous years which make the longitudinal evaluation and comparability of these scores very difficult. However, all schools in Kentucky  faced these same challenges, yet we were able to fare very well against the state average and ranked very high in several categories."

Among those categories celebrated in Campbell Co.: the district's composite ACT score is 17th in the state (out of more than 170 districts), its elementary math scores ranked 9th in the state, and there were also highlights in writing, science, and reading, Rust noted.

Editor's note: Typically, The River City News pulls all local data when the Kentucky Department of Education releases it annually, but because of the nature of the school year last year, and because of school leaders at the local and state level urging caution in drawing conclusions about the results, we are instead simply linking to the state report card for readers to explore their own schools and districts.

For more, visit the Kentucky School Report Card 2021.

-Michael A. Monks and Patricia A. Scheyer

Photo: The playground near Dayton High School closed during the pandemic in 2020 (RCN file)