More Than Five Years After Adopting Common Core, Kentucky’s Black-White Achievement Gap Is Widening

Luba Ostashevsky, The Hechinger Report, May 22, 2016

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Introduced as an ambitious educational reform at the end of the last decade to make sure that, across the U.S., students graduating from the K-12 system are college and career ready, Common Core has ramped up academic expectations that schools everywhere, including those in Kentucky, are still far from meeting.

Kentucky stepped into the national spotlight in 2010 when it became the first state to adopt the standards after the Obama administration offered federal money to help pay the costs. (Over 40 other states and the District of Columbia eventually adopted the Common Core.) On Kentucky’s previous state tests, tied to its old standards, over 70 percent of elementary school students scored at a level of “proficiency” or better in both reading and math. Once the state introduced the Common Core-aligned tests in the spring of 2012, that percentage dropped 28 points in reading (to 48 percent) and 33 points in math (to 40 percent), according to the Kentucky Department of Education. Middle and high school students’ scores also dropped.

Scores have been edging up ever since. By spring 2015, 54 percent of Kentucky elementary school students were proficient in the English language arts and 49 percent were proficient in math.

Despite that improvement, within those numbers are hidden divisions that have existed for decades. Breaking the scores down shows that African-American students fare much worse than their white peers.

In spring 2015, in the elementary grades, 33 percent of black students were proficient in reading, versus 58 percent of white students; in math, the breakdown was 31 percent to 52 percent, according to Kentucky Department of Education figures.

And those gaps, in many cases, have widened, according to an analysis of state testing data by The Hechinger Report and the Courier-Journal.

In Jefferson County Public Schools in 2011-12, the first year of Common Core testing, 25 percent of black third-graders were proficient or better in reading, compared to 54 percent of white third-graders. By 2015, when the majority of those same students likely had reached sixth grade, the percentage of proficient black sixth-graders had inched up 2 points while that of white sixth-graders had increased more than 4 points.

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Closing these gaps was one of the goals of Common Core reform.

In the past, “Schools that were in low-income areas and predominately served students of color often had very low standards for their students that did not prepare them adequately. When the [Common Core] standards were first introduced, I sent them to my sister, a college professor of English, and she wrote back right away, ‘Yeah, this is what you need to succeed in college,’ ” said Sonja Brookins Santelises, vice president of K-12 policy and practice at the Education Trust, a Washington, D.C.-based research group.

Now, Kentucky finds itself at a crossroads. With four years’ worth of testing to show after its quick embrace of Common Core, it’s clear that raising standards was not enough to help all learners. In a state that has tried and failed for decades to eradicate disparities for its low-income and black students, Santelises said, “We knew that the tougher standards had to be followed up with extra attention to students who were behind.” The recent results have sparked new ideas and fueled a redoubled effort to reach those kids.

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Kevin Cosby is head of the historically black Simmons College and pastor of St. Stephen Church. He’s been working to improve the education of the black community in Louisville for more than three decades. The idea of Common Core resonated with him after former state commissioner of education Terry Holliday visited the church to promote it.

Holliday “talked convincingly about how schools were failing African-American children and that the new Common Core state standards would change that,” Cosby said.

But with the gap stubbornly wide five years after implementation, Cosby said that the challenge as he sees it is “that the core is not always common.” If he had his druthers, he said, schools would have longer hours, provide children with three meals and help them do their homework. Schools would also be open on Saturdays and through the summer.

“Another issue is that black students need to have their culture celebrated, which schools run by white females do not do,” he said. “Only by being proud of their history can students reach their highest levels of achievement.”

Now Cosby said he is “an ally” of voices that advocate for more resources to be shifted to zip codes where predominately students of color live. This is the goal of Jerry Stephenson, the minister at the Midwest Church of Christ who leads the “Pastors in Action Coalition,” a group of 50 Kentucky pastors who aim to bring charter schools to the state (Kentucky is currently one of eight states without charter schools). A bill was introduced to the state legislature in March and was passed in the Senate but killed in the House.

In Kentucky, African-American males are more likely to go to prison than complete a four-year college degree, Terry Holliday said in a recent interview. It’s one of the main reasons he brought Common Core to Kentucky.

In a 2015 blog post before he stepped down, Holliday argued that it was a “moral imperative” for the state to help more students reach a higher level of learning. To make his case, he presented some “startling numbers” about the present-day situation.

“We have more than 80,000 students performing at the novice level in reading and more than 60,000 students performing at the novice level in math,” he wrote. “These are the students who will be challenged to complete high school. These are the students who will not reach college- and career-readiness. These are the students who will need social services. These are the students who have a high likelihood of incarceration. These are the students that Kentucky must care more about and provide intervention for before it is too late.”

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