Kentucky’s great grad disconnect

Published 6:32 am Saturday, October 20, 2018


Guest Columnist

How can Kentucky boast one of the nation’s highest high-school graduation rates and yet urgently need reforms related to the diplomas it hands out?

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Call it “the great disconnect.”

Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis did, and for good reason.

While more than 90 percent of Kentucky students who entered high school in the 2013-14 school year received a diploma in four years, data reveal that barely 60 percent of them are “transition ready” — prepared for what comes next, whether college or the workforce.

“For too many of our kids, they’re not going into postsecondary education and they’re not finding jobs,” Lewis, Ph.D., said recently on KET’s Kentucky Tonight show. “And if they go into postsecondary education, they’re not having the success we want them to because they haven’t been prepared.”

The new commissioner with the help of the state education board is committed to changing this trend by implementing what’s known as “quality control” on the factory floor, ensuring the product — in this case diplomas granted to Kentucky’s high-school graduates — represents true preparation for life.

They want to test students entering high school during the 2019-20 school year and graduating in 2023-24 on basic competency in reading and mathematics, eliminate the state’s one-size-fits-all script by giving school districts more flexibility to work with students to design course plans that align with each individual’s future — whether to college or directly into the workforce — and require would-be graduates to meet one of 11 different ways to show they’re ready to make that transition.

It will be more like what happens when college students determine a major and choose their paths based on their individual goals.

Anti-reformers already are pounding their pitchforks in opposition to the reforms.

“We don’t need another test,” they say, even though what’s planned is unlike the comprehensive tests several other states have conducted in myriad areas but which were later dropped as the data suggests they weren’t helpful in creasing graduation rates or diploma strength.

Instead, the plan is to only look at minimum competency in reading and mathematics, because — as Lewis notes — these areas are critical whether you’re going to study history at a university, learn computer programming at a technical school or assemble frames at an automotive plant.

Pitchfork groupies are worried this will drive down graduation rates and make Kentucky look bad.

Theirs is an either/or mindset: either it’s high or healthy graduation rates.

Yet what doth it profit a state to hand students pieces of paper while failing to back those diplomas with a stellar performance?

And how does that piece of paper benefit the 60 percent of the 85 percent of students who graduated at Doss High School earlier this year yet are unprepared for a successful transition to school, work or life?

Anti-reformers look at Doss and apparently think the only way that gap can be bridged is by bringing down the graduation rates.

The transition-ready rates may rise, they reason, but oh my, they can’t possibly increase to the point that both the percentages of students graduating and of those who also are properly prepared for the future are the same, can they?

Why not?

It’s happening at Madison Laboratory High School in Richmond, where 90 percent of the 98 percent of students received a diploma confirming a different, both/and mindset: both graduating on time and effectively prepared for life’s next step.

Similar results at other high schools across Kentucky — including in Beechwood, Augusta, Barbourville and in Lyon, Monroe and Jefferson Counties — convincingly show that Kentucky’s public education system can not only produce quality graduates, but lots of them.

Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. He can be reached at and @bipps on Twitter.