The latest round of academic tests shows that local fourth- and eighth-graders perform about average in math and reading compared to their peers in other large cities.

However, scores dipped for many groups, including African-Americans, Hispanics and students who receive free and reduced lunches, while scores for white students held steady or increased.

The good (and possibly surprising) news: While JCPS students’ scores, on average, still lagged those of their Kentucky peers, Louisville students — including African-Americans — are closing that gap.

The bad news: Compared to the rest of the nation, Kentucky fourth- and eighth-graders — especially black fourth-graders — are falling further behind.

JCPS said that local students’ scores “held steady overall.” In a recent board meeting, Superintendent Marty Pollio said that results also “underscore the importance of the racial equity plan that we just passed, because of the significance of our (racial) gaps.”

The data come from 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress tests, in which 4,600 JCPS students from 58 elementary and 24 middle schools participated. NAEP provides comparisons to other states and to other large cities.

Source: NAEP

According to NAEP, also known as “The Nation’s Report Card,” overall scores for fourth-graders in math were 1 point above, but “not significantly different” compared to public school students in large cities. Fourth-grade reading scores, at 221, were “higher than the average score of 213 for public school students in large cities.” The 2017 scores in math and reading were not significantly different from 2015 and 2009.

For grade eight, the average math score, 271, was “lower than the average score of 274 for public school students in large cities,” while the reading score, 261, was “not significantly different” from peer districts. Neither JCPS score was significantly different from scores in 2015 and 2009.

Source: NAEP

Racial disparities

White JCPS students performed better than the state average in both grades and in both subjects.

Compared to the national average, white JCPS students performed better only in fourth-grade reading. White Kentucky fourth- and eighth-graders as a whole performed worse than the national average in both grade levels and both subjects.

Black students in both JCPS and the state as a whole performed worse than the national average in each grade and each category. While the gaps in performance between black students in JCPS and the nation remained about the same for eighth-graders, they widened significantly for black fourth graders:

  • The average math score for black fourth-graders across the nation was 223, down 1 point from 2015, but they fell 9 points for black JCPS students, to 216. (They fell 8 points for the state.)
  • The average reading score for black fourth graders across the nation was 205, down 1 point, but they fell 5 points for black JCPS students, to 203.

That means that while black fourth-graders in JCPS performed better in math and reading than their peers across in the nation in 2015, they performed worse in 2017.

JCPS said that reading scores for Hispanic students fell — but math scores improved. For students who are eligible for the National School Lunch Program, scores declined in fourth-grade reading and math, as well as eighth-grade reading. They remained steady in eighth-grade math.

Dena Dossett

Dena Dossett, chief executive director of the district’s Data Management, Planning and Program Evaluation Services, told Jefferson County Board of Education members this month that while scores overall “remain steady,” some achievement gaps are widening.

Data provided by NAEP and successful approaches taken by other districts should help JCPS figure out how to get struggling students some additional help to close those gaps, she said.

The district also said in a news release that it already has begun addressing some of the challenges. For example, it began this year to employ online tests to identify with precision the academic deficiencies students suffer when they transfer from one school to another or when they miss significant amounts of classroom instruction.

Pollio confident in turnaround

Marty Pollio

Pollio said that he was confident that the district’s focus on literacy and numeracy would effect a turnaround.

“We really have to look at what kids are taught, when they are taught it, how we identify students who are not where they need to be, what we provide to them additionally … (regarding) interventions in the classroom, interventions outside of the classroom during the school day and extending the school day.”

In the news release provided by JCPS, Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, praised the district’s efforts.

“The new superintendent is already making the reforms and improvements necessary to substantially boost student outcomes in the years to come,” he said. “I am very optimistic about Jefferson County’s future.”

However, a high-ranking state official recently warned that the NAEP scores revealed some troubling trends.

Hal Heiner

Hal Heiner, a member of the Kentucky Board of Education, told Insider that the recent scores worried him especially because students on free and reduced lunches scored significantly below other Kentucky students.

He also cautioned against relying on average scores, because they often mask the high numbers of low-performers.

In a recent meeting in Frankfort, Heiner had said that while average scores for Kentucky have remained level, the share of students who are struggling, especially in reading, continues to increase, which has serious implications for graduation rates.

Between 2015 and 2017, about 4,000 additional Kentucky fourth- and eighth-graders have landed in the bottom assessment category, meaning they lack even partial mastery of the subject matters, Heiner said.

“As you think about their life, it’s really troubling for the future, kind of a split with (scores of) high performers going up enough to mask the decline of low performers, so the average stays about flatlined,” he said.