Kentucky’s accountability system looks set to change again

Trying to keep up with all of the changes to a state’s accountability system is a little like drinking from a waterfall. Thanks to this new bombshell from the Courier-Journal, it appears that Kentucky’s accountability system is looking more and more like Niagara Falls every day.


The debacle du jour deals with Kentucky’s identifying labels for schools. If you aren’t familiar with the new monikers (or if you still think that “CSI” is just a show about forensic investigators in Miami), read this primer first.

Specifically, the issue rests with “targeted support and improvement schools,” commonly referred to as TSI schools. Having a TSI label doesn’t necessarily mean a school is struggling, it just means that one or more student groups — like African-American or special education students, for example — are underperforming. Unlike “comprehensive support and improvement” schools (CSI), which make up the bottom 5 percent of all Kentucky schools, TSI schools can’t receive additional funding from the state or federal government to help their turnaround efforts.

That’s a major problem, given that roughly a third of all Kentucky schools were labeled TSI last year.

Back in the spring, lawmakers thought they found a solution when they passed SB 175, which would have drastically changed how schools are identified and limited the number of TSI schools around the state. But as you can see above, that didn’t exactly pan out the way lawmakers had planned. Earlier this month, it was discovered that the law “has the potential to exclude 90% of schools with an underperforming student group,” thus violating the federal law known as the Every Student Succeeds Act and forcing policymakers back to the drawing board… again.

Now, it’s up to Kentucky to determine a “new new” definition for TSI schools. And because that will likely take some time to accomplish, Commissioner Wayne Lewis has already issued a statement declaring that the state won’t be identifying any TSI schools at all this year.

So What Does That All Mean?

A great question, to be sure, and one that will likely evolve over time.

For now, one of the most interesting quirks of this whole situation is the catch-22 nature of TSI identification. Given its limited resources, Kentucky certainly doesn’t want to continue labeling hundreds of schools as TSI, but at the same time, we also can’t afford to ignore underperforming student groups across the state as SB 175 would have done.

In other words, we want to strike a healthy balance between the two. Our hope is for a revised plan in which the state can continue focusing its resources on the lowest-performing schools while still making achievement gaps a priority in all schools. (So, if you’ve got a plan that can do that, contact me so I can promptly launch your campaign for governor.)

But the real takeaway from this is more solemn, however, because if there’s anything that the fallout from this situation goes to show us, it’s how persistent achievement gaps have been across Kentucky schools.

The data are clear: the gap between Kentucky’s highest and lowest-performing students is continuing to grow, and schools need additional supports to combat that slide among their most vulnerable student populations. The fact that 418 Kentucky schools were identified as TSI last year is evidence for that, and while the majority of those schools appear to have met the exit criteria to drop that label, Kentucky wants to keep it that way. When any group of students suffers, we all suffer, and it’s on us to provide all Kentucky kids with the support they need to excel.

If the state can come up with a new education plan that complies with ESSA, we’ll get some of that support in the form of federal funding. Is that truly enough, though?

As the state reshapes its identifying labels moving forward, I hope policymakers will begin thinking of ways to generate or free up additional resources for Kentucky’s TSI schools as well. If we don’t, we risk seeing more of Kentucky’s youth slip through the cracks.

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