This year Kentucky public school students took tests using the state’s new accountability measure for the first time. “College and Career Readiness” are the keywords tied to education reforms brought about by 2009 legislation. The focus is making the students successful, no matter their path in life. In the 2011-2012 school year, students got the first round of tougher math and reading programs, and test scores released in November show how well they did. While school districts’ scores varied, all have benefited from higher standards.
No one stays in their seat for this science class. Seventh and eighth graders at Murray Middle School work in pairs to build miniature bridges with balsa wood and Elmer’s glue. It’s a project for engineering class, one of the school’s “science challenge” courses.
Seventh grader Charlie Gannon says the goal is to make the strongest bridge using the least amount of wood.
“And try to like reenact like what designers have to do with like bridges. They have a certain amount, they have a budget, so they can’t just keep on putting on little pieces that won’t do anything. They have to make it financially good and structurally sound," said Gannon.
As the boys argue over whether they need more sticks or not, seventh graders Mary Alex and Nicole Parker chat about the text messages on their cell phones as they wait for the glue on their bridge to dry. Of the models, theirs looks the most like a modern bridge.
At first, the girls don’t seem that excited about the project. They say they’re not good at this stuff like the boys are. They cite a Lego building assignment earlier in the semester that didn’t go so well.
But when Parker jokes that their bridge will hold a less than a pound, Alex jumps to the defense.
“I think it will do pretty good, because we thought we couldn’t do it at first after the Lego experience. But this is how far we’ve gotten, and now everybody’s giving us good compliments on our bridge, saying that it looks clean, and that it looks sturdy," said Alex. "So I think it will test pretty well."
Mike Epperson has been teaching this course for four years, before Kentucky’s new accountability measures went into effect. He says that’s only made it more rigorous.
Epperson wants the students to learn that there’s more than one way to solve a problem, a skill they will need when they go out for a job. Epperson says in this class being a teacher is more about guiding his students toward creativity than telling them the right answer.
“One of the things that’s difficult to teach the kids is it’s OK to fail, because that’s how we learn things. So by them trying different challenges, and not always succeeding, that usually drives them. I’ve had some students that after building the bridge and theirs fail to hold a lot of weight, they immediately wanted to build another. To try again," said Epperson.
Murray’s Assistant Superintendent Eleanor Spry is ready with a stack of student achievement data. Murray Independent School District was one of the highest scoring districts in Kentucky under the new accountability system, with 73.3 out of 100 possible points.
Spry is passionate about Murray Schools.
“Our bottom line is this. Our students have to be successful. They have to be successful to be college, career ready in everything that they do. And when you say what do they do in the classroom? Our focus remains on instruction, what we do overall instructionally. But then what we’re doing for every student individually," said Spry.
The accountability score measures a fistful of factors: how much students learned, graduation rates, and how big the gap is between the highest achievers and the lowest ones. Spry credits the district’s scores to very committed staff, heavy parent involvement, and great kids.
“I’ve heard some people say, ‘Well, it’s because you’re next to Murray State University. You are very privileged and therefore don’t have the problems that we have. We are very privileged to partner with Murray State and being a wonderful community. But everybody comes in. All families live here," said Spry.
Most of the districts in western Kentucky scored lower on the achievement scale, something school administrators spent the entire year preparing the public for. It’s a new scoring system, they said, you have to start somewhere.
Fulton County Schools was one of many that were rated in need of improvement, with a score of 44.4. Superintendent Dennis Bledsoe says there’s one factor the district struggles with more than any other.
“It’s economics. That’s a tough one for a school district to overcome," he said.
Fulton County has a high unemployment rate, and Bledsoe says it’s been that way for some time. He says some students don’t see a future for themselves.
“It’s a good school district. They just need the confidence to see. The big turnaround we’ve seen in the last year or so is the students’ attitude at the high school. They now believe well, I can go to college. There is a way to go," Bledsoe said
Fulton County’s graduation rate was 70 percent for this past school year. It’s under the state average, but Bledsoe still feels the school is on an upward trend.
He credits the change in attitude to those education keywords, a focus on College and Career Readiness. Bledsoe says Fulton County began pushing for that before the state did. For him, it means educators are focusing on building skills rather than preparing students for specific careers.
“Just because that’s just the nature of the system today. Like 50 percent of the jobs that are in America right now will be gone in 20 years and be replaced with something else. You might have three or four different occupations if you get 20 years down the road," said Bledsoe. "So you need to be trained globally with good language skills, with good math skills that are transferrable across a wide range of careers, not just the one specific career.”
So while the students at Murray Middle School are learning what a bridge builder does, that’s not all they’re learning.
The mission of every school district is the same: to prepare students for life. Murray Independent’s Eleanor Spry says Kentucky’s new standards clarify that role.
“The difference this year from the years before is that we’re going beyond application to analysis, synthesis and evaluation. We’re upping the ante," said Spry.
The Kentucky Department of Education requires that all school districts show improvement by three or four points on next year’s accountability tests. For some, it’s going to take a long time to raise their scores. But every student has the chance to make progress.