Misread and misled?

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"Misread or Misled" is a Policy Point written by education analyst Richard Innes.

Is student reading really improving in Jefferson County?

A story about World War I claims the British government kept three sets of statistics on the incredible number of casualties. The first set was meant to fool the enemy. The second tried to fool the public. The last tried to fool itself. It looks like history might repeat itself. This time it’s in Jefferson County Public Schools, Kentucky’s largest public-school district. The Every1Reads Web site reports that an incredibly large percentage of Jefferson County’s students are reading “At or Above Grade Level.” Is this really accurate?

The Facts

• An “At or Above Grade Level” scoring scheme exists only in the imagination of Jefferson County educators. Kentucky’s state assessment program does not grade that way. Rather, the scoring scale used for reading in Kentucky includes eight grades: “Novice Nonperformance” (essentially, the student didn’t answer any questions); “Novice-medium;” “Novice-high;” “Apprentice-low;” “Apprentice-medium;” “Apprentice-high;” “Proficient” and “Distinguished.”

• While the state does not define an “At or Above Grade Level” score, it’s clear that the state considers only students scoring “Proficient” or “Distinguished” to be doing acceptable work.

• The county concocted a much lower standard for itself. In an attempt to make itself look good, it determined that any “Apprentice” level score on the state assessments, even “Apprentice-low,” is “At or Above Grade Level” work. This makes a mockery of statewide standards.

How JCPS Really Performs

The Kentucky Department of Education’s 2006 Kentucky Performance Report for Jefferson County shows much lower reading proficiency rates (students rated “Proficient” plus those rated “Distinguished”) for Jefferson County schools as shown in Table 1. The table also includes a column with the overall “simple average” reading rates throughout all school levels to correspond to the way the Every1Reads data is presented.

CATS.Table1.JPG

What is even more worrisome is that recent trends in reading proficiency in Jefferson County schools remain nearly flat at the critical elementary school level. The current rate of progress requires decades before county elementaryschool proficiency gets close to 100 percent. Progress is a bit faster for higher-level schools, but current proficiency levels are lower than in the elementary schools. The proposition that on average, 87.1 percent of the students in the county read on grade level in 2006 is an illusion — even when inflated CATS scores are considered. (Note: CATS is also a watered- down assessment. Kentucky’s statewide CATS reading proficiency rates for both fourth and eighth grades are notably higher than the state’s proficiency rates on the federal National Assessment of Educational Progress, called the NAEP.)

What is more important, with only about one out of two county students currently achieving reading proficiency even on the relatively easy CATS assessments, the district clearly needs to accomplish a lot more.

See Also