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Positive trends worth noting in Kentucky education

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For several years now, the General Assembly’s Office of Education Accountability has compiled an annual report that gives us a big-picture look at how our students compare to their counterparts in other states.

While there are persistent challenges, many tied to poverty, the report has some positive trends certainly worth noting.

Our fourth grade reading scores in 2011, for example, ranked 10th nationally, while eighth grade scores came in at 12th, according to the National Education Assessment of Progress, which gives what is informally called the “nation’s report card.” About a month ago, we learned from this organization that eighth graders also performed well on science, and their scores have exceeded the national average in this subject for more than a decade.

In high school, meanwhile, many more students are dedicating themselves to Advanced Placement courses, which provide college credit if the students earn a passing score. Between 2002 and 2010, the percentage of students taking these classes nearly doubled – from 6.5 percent to 12.2 percent – and the percentage getting college credit doubled as well.

The percentage of high school students getting their diplomas is also improving. Kentucky had the 23rd best rate in this category in 2009, and while being ahead of the national average is good in one sense, it is still deeply troubling when one in four ninth graders across the country drops out before getting his or her diploma. That’s a key reason why many of my colleagues in the Kentucky House of Representatives and I have tried repeatedly to increase the state’s dropout age from 16 to 18.

Speaking of high school, Kentucky got great news a little more than a week ago when Newsweek magazine declared that seven of our high schools made Newsweek’s best 1,000 in the country, with the Gatton Academy of Mathematics and Science in Kentucky getting the prestigious top spot.

This institution, which opened in 2007 and is based at Western Kentucky University, draws some of our brightest students from across the state and essentially puts them in a college setting. This allows them not only to get their high school diploma but earn a considerable amount of college credit too.

In addition to classroom comparisons, the Office of Education Accountability Report also looks at other non-academic aspects of our schools.

Forty-four percent of our students are taught in a rural setting – putting us ninth in this category – and partly as a result of that, we have a much higher staff-to-student ratio. There are 174 people working in our schools for every 1,000 students, compared to the national average of 129 per 1,000.

Our student/teacher ratio, on the other hand, is just slightly better than the national average, with 15.3 students in each Kentucky classroom. Teacher pay is also at the national average; in this category, we are right at 25th.

As I mentioned, poverty remains one of the most long-term challenges we face, and the tough economy of the last several years has not helped. About 55 percent of our students qualify for free or reduced lunch, which is six percentage points higher than in 2002.

Overall, there is always room for improvement when it comes to the classroom, but as this report and other findings show, we are making lasting strides in many areas. The goal now is to build on that momentum in the years ahead, with our sights set not just on the national average but far beyond.

If you have any questions or comments about this issue, or anything else affecting state government, you can always reach me by writing to Room 366B, Capitol Annex, 702 Capitol Avenue, Frankfort, KY 40601.

You can also leave a message for me or for any legislator at 800-372-7181. For those with a hearing impairment, the number is 800-896-0305.

I hope to hear from you soon.

State Representative Rick Rand