Poor test scores and what can be done to improve them brought about some soul searching at Monday night’s meeting of the Letcher County Board of Education. Frustrated board members think students have the potential — with proper help from teachers and administrators — to excel at higher levels than the test scores show.
When the results of Kentucky’s new academic achievement testing system were released earlier this month, the Letcher County school system ranked 152 of 174 school districts in the state. All but one of the county’s 15 elementary, middle and high schools were placed in the “Needs Improvement” category. Fleming-Neon Middle School was the lone success story, ranking as “proficient.”
The subject of the Letcher County schools’ performance on the Kentucky Performance Rating for Educational Progress tests, which replaced the Commonwealth Accountability Testing System that had been in place since 1990, came after the district’s director of assessment and accountability, Jackie Collins, reported to the board on a meeting of principals and “leadership teams” and their plans to improve student achievement.
“Almost every single school came up with the same problems,” said Collins. “They wanted some very active and purposeful student engagement. They want kids doing the work instead of teachers. Many of them thought we need to teach our children to critically think. We are not judging individual teachers; we are looking at it as an entire school.”
“I did not get up on the wrong side of the bed so don’t get me wrong,” replied Board Member Sam Quillen Jr., a Neon dentist. “I have heard this report before. I have heard this for several years and it does not seem like it is working. We were told a few years ago that we as a board could start seeing improvements. We as a board were told, if I am not mistaken, that we were going to be working with teachers who routinely scored low in their (student’s achievement tests) and we would know who they are they would be offered help to try to bring those test scores up.”
“I’d like to see that,” Quillen continued. “If we have people not doing their job in this district semester after semester, year after year — and I know I will probably make people mad by saying this, but I think that is our job — I would like to know who they are and what is being done about it and why we have kids who are not doing as well as they should be in Letcher County.
“ I’m sorry if I have stepped on any toes. I may have, but I have been sitting in this seat a long time and hearing the reports. It seems like sometimes it is repetitive on things I have heard before, but yet we are not doing what we should be doing and not seeing the results in the classroom.”
Remarking on what he sees as the need for more accountability from teachers and administrators, Board Member John Spicer of Seco said, “I never had a job in my life I could be complacent in. I would have already gotten fired many times.”
Statewide, more than two-thirds of the schools and districts are in the “needs improvement” category — a statistic Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday said should not be seen as “an indicator of failure.”
Letcher Schools Superintendent Anna Craft said she has never seen the district’s teachers “work as hard as they are working.”
Craft said that during the week after the test scores were released on November 2, “everybody was kind of angry. I said, ‘You are going to be out there a minimum of three days a week all day long. You are going to work with the principal; you are going to work with the staff.’”
While acknowledging that if teachers and administrators “don’t get our student achievement up we are not doing our job,” she also pointed out that employees are “working longer hours” without receiving any significant pay raise in a number of years.
“This board has given them a one-percent raise in six years,” said Craft. “They have had no raise and they are asked to do more and more. We have had 16 people retire this past year. We already know a ‘gob’ who are going to retire this year. The pool of teachers applying anywhere in the state is going down, down, down. I don’t think we thank our teachers enough. I don’t think we give them enough credit. They are missionaries. They are not in it for the money. I can tell you that. Teachers love their children. Aides love them (too).”
Craft said that Fleming- Neon Middle School did well on the testing “because they worked hard (and) pulled together.” She said other schools worked equally as hard, but just couldn’t achieve the same results.
“ Some of our other schools, they were devastated,” she said. “They worked as hard. They made gains, but they didn’t make the total gains. We’re searching for answers. We are trying to provide all the help we can.”
Collins, the assessment and accountability director, said teachers and administrators “need to get the children more involved” if test scores are to go up.
“We’ve got people who are working so hard who have that love for children,” Collins said. “We’re just trying to redirect them (children) in the right direction. If I do all the work for you (a student) and give you all the answers, I am not teaching you how to be a productive citizen outside the classroom.”
“If you find yourself in a hole, quit digging,” replied Quillen. “Sometimes I get frustrated when I see that our kids aren’t doing as well as other kids. I’m not saying that we are digging, but sometimes you need to stop digging and figure out what is happening.”
Quillen concluded: “I know you are working hard. I know our teachers are working hard. We’ve got to do something to turn it around. I think that is what we want as a board, (that) every school be proficient or getting pretty dagburn close to it. If we are satisfied or complacent with what is going on then we are not doing our job.”
“This board sets its goals high, and we want to see our kids succeed,” added Board Chairman Will Smith. “It frustrates the board sometimes. Frustration showed up here tonight. We want our kids to really achieve at a high level. I hope we can get there.”
Three Letcher County schools — Arlie Boggs Elementary, Letcher Elementary, and West Whitesburg Elementary — ranked in the bottom 10 percent of student achievement levels. The now-defunct Beckham Bates Elementary School was in the bottom one percent.
Letcher County Central High School ranked in the bottom 15 percent in Kentucky. Performing better were Fleming-Neon Elementary, Whitesburg Middle School, Martha Jane Potter Elementary, and Cowan Elementary, all of which ranked among the top half of Kentucky schools.
Fleming-Neon Middle School landed in the 72nd percentile, meaning that only 28 percent of schools did better on test scores.
Letcher County’s ranking of 152 was just slightly worse than the Jenkins Independent School System’s ranking of 146. All three Jenkins schools — Jenkins Elementary, Jenkins Middle and Jenkins High — ranked below the 50th percentile, with Jenkins High School in the bottom 12 percent of Kentucky schools.
Neighboring Knott County rated 84th among Kentucky’s 174 districts. Pike County was 143rd, Harlan County 150th, and Perry County 160th.
The Pikeville Independent School System was eighth in Kentucky. The Harlan Independent system was 13th, and the Hazard Independent schools were 51st.