When taking the long view, Kentucky has covered quite a bit of ground since we overhauled elementary and secondary education in 1990.
Several years ago, for example, a study out of Harvard University found that only seven states saw their schools make greater progress during the previous two decades. Education Week's most recent Quality Counts study, meanwhile, ranks Kentucky 16th when focused just on academic achievement.
As great as these gains are, there is still considerable room for improvement. This year marks a new push in that effort as we implement far-reaching state and federal changes that are designed to give us a clearer picture of how students are doing and where more work is needed.
Several recent reports from education officials are giving us the type of information we need to make those informed decisions.
Late last month, when school report cards were released, the Kentucky Department of Education had some good news when it comes to our older students.
Nearly nine out of 10 are graduating high school, which is up about two percentage points from two years ago. These students are also taking more Advanced Placement exams and passing, with half of their test scores high enough to earn college credit. The college and career readiness rate has risen to 65 percent, which is nearly 10 points higher than just several years ago.
The ACT, perhaps the most well-known academic benchmark, is showing gains as well here in Kentucky, with the composite score rising from 19.2 in 2012-13 to 19.8 last year. It is worth pointing out that Kentucky is one of 17 states that has all high school students take this test and we out-performed nine of them.
Two recent reports by the Office of Education Accountability -- which is attached administratively to the General Assembly rather than the Department of Education -- underscore the importance of early education for at-risk children and the perils of chronic absenteeism.
In OEA's look at preschool and kindergarten, the agency found sizable achievement gaps when measuring the amount of schooling, if any, that eligible children receive. Eligibility is based on income or special needs, and those from this group who attend Head Start or preschool are twice as likely to be ready for kindergarten as those who stay at home.
Unfortunately, almost 22,000 young children -- 40 percent of the total population that could attend -- were not enrolled from the 2014 through 2016 school years.
The state requires school districts offer at least a half-day of preschool, but 40 percent have extended that to full-day service. Understandably, OEA found students who spend more time in this setting are better prepared for kindergarten than those who spend less.
The General Assembly has sought over the years to make preschool available to more children by raising the family income limit to 160 percent of the federal poverty level. We tried to increase that to 200 percent last year, but that attempt was vetoed.
On a positive note, our preschool services are highly regarded, with an independent study showing us ahead of nearly all of our surrounding states when looking at requirements. We meet nine of the 10 benchmarks, a rate only West Virginia exceeds, while such states as Indiana and Ohio only meet three or four.
In its look at truancy and chronic absenteeism, OEA highlighted a disturbing trend in which 60 percent of our elementary and secondary students meet the legal definition of truancy, which means they are tardy or absent for three or more days without a valid excuse. Forty percent of students have that happen at least twice in a school year.
Chronic absenteeism -- when a student misses 15 days or more, whether excused or not -- is a related problem. In looking at our surrounding states, we have the second-highest percentage of students who, for whatever reason, are not in class. Not surprisingly, these students are not performing as well as they could academically.
As much as schools have changed over the years, these reports re-affirm that the formula for success remains the same. The more time a student spends with a highly trained and caring teacher, the more likely he or she will succeed.
We count on our teachers to do a lot, and often they use their own money to make sure students have the proper resources. Many teachers also come to school when they are not feeling well because they know they are needed and the number of available substitutes is low.
As legislators consider potential changes to retirement plans for teachers -- and all school and local and state government employees -- it is important that we keep in mind the good things all of them do. We need to make sure this workforce stays strong.
I will of course keep you informed of that work as it moves ahead. For now, if you have thoughts about any issue affecting Kentucky, please let me know. You can write to me at Room 472, Capitol Annex, 702 Capitol Avenue, Frankfort KY 40601; or you can email me at Wilson.Stone@lrc.ky.gov.
To leave a message for me or for any legislator, call toll-free at 800-372-7181. For those with a hearing impairment, the number is 800-896-0305.
I hope to hear from you soon.