As JCPS leaders prepare to fight a state takeover, the district’s critics contend that JCPS students perform worse on state standardized tests than their peers across the state, often leading to large achievement gaps between black and white students.

But are those criticisms valid?

An Insider analysis of Jefferson County Public Schools’ 2017 K-PREP scores shows that the district’s overall scores do, indeed, generally lag behind state averages.

However, most student groups, including African-Americans, do not trail state averages by much.

And some groups, including white students, generally perform better than state averages.

But two JCPS student subgroups — those on free and reduced lunches and those with disabilities — fared significantly worse than the state average.

Susan Weston

Susan Weston, who recently analyzed K-PREP scores for the nonprofit, nonpartisan Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, drew similar conclusions.

“Jefferson County is a little below the state, (but) it’s not a vast drop,” Weston told Insider this week.

The district declined to comment on the findings.

The analysis: math and reading proficiency

For its analysis, Insider looked at the share of students who scored proficient or distinguished on 2017 K-PREP tests in math and reading in elementary, middle and high schools, and compared six JCPS student subgroups — white, black, Hispanic, English learners, students receiving free or reduced lunch and students with disabilities — with their peers in Fayette, Kenton, Boone, Warren and Hardin counties.

Source: Kentucky Department of Education. | Illustration by Boris Ladwig

In 36 K-PREP categories analyzed by Insider, JCPS had the lowest or next-to-lowest score 24 times, more than any other district. Fayette County Public Schools fared only slightly better, ranking last or next-to-last 20 times.

Both districts are, by far, the state’s largest and most diverse. JCPS has about 100,000 students, while FCPS has about 40,000. The other four districts have an average fewer than 13,000 students.

The share of white students in JCPS is about 45 percent, and in FCPS is about 52 percent. Shares in the other districts range from 68 percent in Hardin to 88 percent in Kenton. JCPS also has the highest share of students on free and reduced lunches, at nearly 65 percent.

The Kenton County School District ranked last or next-to-last only twice in the 36 categories, by far the fewest. It also ranked first or second in the subgroups 21 times, by far the most often.

The district is the most homogeneous, with nearly 88 percent of students being white, and it also has the second-lowest share of students on free and reduced lunches, at 42.3.

Put another way, JCPS has 14.7 percent of the state’s public school students, 15.6 percent of the state’s poor students and 50 percent of the state’s African-American students.

In 36 K-PREP categories analyzed by Insider, JCPS ranked first in none, and second in only four: elementary math for Hispanic students, elementary math for English learners, and high school English and math for Hispanic students.

While JCPS ranked at or near the bottom, compared to the other five districts, in two-thirds of the categories, the differences between JCPS and the other districts in many categories were small:

  • The difference between the JCPS score and the average of the other five districts exceeded 5 percentage points in just seven of 30* measures.
  • The difference between the JCPS score and the state average exceeded 5 percentage points in six measures — all for student groups either with a disability or on free or reduced lunches.

Comparisons of student groups

Source: Kentucky Department of Education. | Illustration by Boris Ladwig

White students in JCPS performed better than state average in elementary reading and math, middle math, and high school English and math — trailing the state average only in middle school English.

The difference to the state average was smallest in middle school math, where 51 percent of white JCPS students scored proficient or distinguished, compared to 50.7 percent for the state as a whole.

The difference to the state average was largest in elementary math, where 57.5 percent of white JCPS students scored proficient or distinguished, compared to 52.8 percent of white students across the state.

Source: Kentucky Department of Education | Illustration by Boris Ladwig

Black students in JCPS performed worse than state average in elementary reading and math, middle reading and math and high school English. They performed on par with the state average in high school math.

The difference to the state average was smallest in elementary math, where 27 percent of JCPS students scored proficient or distinguished, compared to 27.9 percent for the state as a whole.

The difference to the state average was largest in middle school reading, where 29.4 percent of JCPS students scored proficient or distinguished, compared to 32.6 percent of black students across the state.

Hispanics, English learners

Hispanic students performed better than state average in three of six categories: elementary math, high school English and high school math; and worse than state average in elementary reading, and middle school reading and math.

JCPS students trailed their peers across the state by as much as 3.9 percentage points (middle school reading) and were ahead of their peers by as much as 3.9 percentage points (high school math.)

English learners in JCPS performed worse than their Kentucky peers in five of six categories, but the differences were small, an average 1.3 percentage points. English learners in JCPS trailed their peers to the greatest degree in middle school math, where 7.7 percent of JCPS students scored proficient or distinguished, compared to 12 percent across the state.

Biggest gaps for students in poverty or with a disability

Test scores of JCPS students on free or reduced lunches or with a disability trailed their peers across the state by a much larger margin than any other student subgroup.

Both subgroups trailed their peers across the state in each of the six categories — elementary English and math, middle school English and math, high school English and math. Every other subgroup — whites, blacks, Hispanics, English learners — performed at least at state average in at least one category.

Source: Kentucky Department of Education. | Illustration by Boris Ladwig

The gaps between test scores for poor or disabled students in JCPS and their peers across the state also were much greater than for the other subgroups.

For example, while African-American JCPS students trailed their Kentucky peers, on average, by 1.9 percentage points, JCPS students on free or reduced lunches trailed their peers across the state by an average 7.5 percentage points, and disabled JCPS students trailed their Kentucky peers by an average 10.2 percentage points.

Both student groups trailed their Kentucky peers the least in high school, by an average 4.6 percentage points.

In middle school, JCPS students on free and reduced lunches trailed their peers across the state by 9.1 percentage points in math and 11.9 percentage points in reading. Only about a one in four JCPS middle school students on free and reduced lunches scored proficient or distinguished in math. Across the state, it’s about one in three students.

In elementary school, JCPS students on free and reduced lunches trailed their Kentucky peers by 5.2 percentage points in math and 9.5 percentage points in reading.

For disabled students, the scores were even worse: In both English and math, at both elementary and middle school levels, disabled JCPS students scored, on average, 13 percentage points worse than disabled students for the state as a whole.

The biggest difference, in elementary reading scores, was an astounding 17.3 percentage points. Across the state, 35.6 percent of elementary school students with a disability scored proficient or distinguished in reading. For JCPS students, that share was 18.3 percent. That’s a difference of 48.6 percent.

Richard Innes, education analyst for the Bluegrass Institute, the libertarian research group, told Insider via email the data show that the district’s black students are being left behind while white students appear generally to do better than their peers across the state.

While Rich Gimmel, vice chair of the Kentucky Board of Education, agreed with the general assessment from Insider, he said he worried about the growing achievement gaps between white and black students at the elementary and high school levels.

Scores for African-American students in JCPS remain “unforgivably low,” Gimmel said, and have not improved in the last few years.

Gimmel is one of the 11 KBE members who will decide the future management of the district. The state’s interim commissioner of education, Wayne Lewis, recommended that the state take over the district — a recommendation the Jefferson County Board of Education unanimously voted to challenge.

Brent McKim

Brent McKim, president of the Jefferson County Teachers Association, told Insider via email that compared to other school districts in Kentucky, JCPS is facing “unparalleled challenges,” including high levels of poverty, homelessness, English language learners and trauma with which students deal outside of school.

“All of these barriers to student learning require a tremendous investment in additional resources, counselors, and supports if students are to overcome them, but the state has been cutting our resources year after year,” McKim said. “This has left JCPS less and less able to help our students overcome these pernicious urban barriers to success.”

Weston, of the Prichard Committee, told Insider that she was puzzled by the polarization of JCPS schools, in that the district, judged on test results, has some of the state’s best schools — but also some of the worst.

It’s possible, she said, that schools with poor results can get stuck in a vicious cycle: Administrators and staff at underperforming schools may internalize their poor results and reputation. And that means new teachers and kids who arrive at the schools may not believe that they can effect a change, which leads to further poor test results, she said.

Those schools have to focus on changing their culture and climate, she said, to begin a turnaround.

Weston said that while JCPS students as a whole perform worse than stage average on standardized tests, the performances of some students, including African-Americans, is “quite similar” to their peers across the state.

“It’s more like a ‘can we up our game’ (problem) than ‘you’ve permanently failed the game’ kind of problem,” she said.

*For some comparisons, Insider excluded certain categories because some school districts had too few students in some subgroups. For example, only 20 African-American students in Kenton County took the English portion of the high school test in 2017. Using guidance from the U.S. Department of Education, the KDE suppressed those results to protect student identification as required by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. Click here to explore the data Insider used.

Coming Thursday: The racial achievement gap is getting worse — but not just at JCPS.

Boris Ladwig is a reporter with more than 20 years of experience and has won awards from multiple journalism organizations in Indiana and Kentucky for feature series, news, First Amendment/community affairs, nondeadline news, criminal justice, business and investigative reporting. As part of The (Columbus, Indiana) Republic’s staff, he also won the Kent Cooper award, the top honor given by the Associated Press Managing Editors for the best overall news writing in the state. A graduate of Indiana State University, he is a soccer aficionado (Borussia Dortmund and 1. FC Köln), singer and travel enthusiast who has visited countries on five continents. He speaks fluent German, rudimentary French and bits of Spanish, Italian, Khmer and Mandarin.


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