Common Core: A look at how Kentucky made it work

As Ohio marches through testing season, concerns continue to surface over whether the state's New Learning Standards are in the best interests of Buckeye students. Though Ohioans are understandably focused on what these standards mean for their home, the relative success neighboring Kentucky is having with the standards might calm Ohio’s fears—and perhaps inspire it to make its implementation more effective.

In February 2010, Kentucky was the first state to adopt the Common Core State Standards and incorporate them into the Kentucky Core Academic Standards (KCAS). Common Core was widely seen as a huge step up for Kentucky—Fordham called Kentucky’s prior standards “among the worst in the country” and gave both the language arts and mathematics standards a D grade. Much like Ohio, Kentucky played a significant role in the drafting process for the Common Core. Teachers, the public, administrators, higher education officials, and the staff from three agencies (the Council on Postsecondary Education, the Education Professional Standards Board, and the Kentucky Department of Education) gave input and feedback on the standards.

The new standards were first taught in Kentucky schools in the 2011–12 school year. The state’s implementation of Common Core centered on leadership teams made up of content teachers from each grade level, special education teachers, instructional leaders, and administrators from all 173 school districts. Team members received in-depth training on the standards, and math and English teachers were charged with breaking down the standards into student learning targets. Team members then shared the targets and training with their colleagues back in their respective districts, creating a vitally important sense of ownership and buy-in. To further supplement training efforts, the Kentucky Department of Education provided teachers with a new online system of instructional resources and formative assessments that were aligned with the standards. This provided teachers with the resources they needed without mandating their use. In addition, teachers, school leaders, and district officials meet one day each month to discuss issues regarding implementation and to share solutions and ideas. 

Aside from offering quality training and resources to teachers, the department has also done an excellent job sharing information with the public. Their website contains videos, resources geared toward specific groups, and plenty of fact sheets available for public perusal. There is even an entire initiative called ReadyKentucky whose sole purpose is to educate teachers, parents, leaders, and the public on the standards and assessments. The department has also asked the public to make recommendations about specific standards they believe need to be changed as implementation continues. 

While implementation certainly has been focused and energetic, the achievement of Kentucky students is the best indicator of Common Core’s success there. In the 2011–12 school year, Kentucky replaced its old state exams with brand new ones (the new tests are called K-PREP) that were designed to reflect the rigor of the Common Core. Proficiency rates fell during the first year students were tested under the new system—as most predicted they would—but scores have steadily improved since then. In an October 2014 press release, the department shared its most recent achievement results. Education Commissioner Terry Holliday declared, “[T]he numbers show, without a doubt, that we are making progress.” 

There are a whole slew of positive trends to which Holliday could justifiably point with pride. High school juniors who took the ACT in 2014 recorded the highest scores since all juniors in Kentucky started taking the test in 2008. In addition, the percentage of juniors who met the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education’s benchmarks for college readiness have increased in English, math, and reading each year since Common Core was introduced. Overall student performance on state tests has improved: Since 2012, elementary schools made gains in reading, math, science, and writing. Middle schools increased each year in all content areas except one (language mechanics), and high schools made gains in science and social studies. Students in groups that historically suffer from achievement gaps are performing at higher levels across multiple content areas and grade levels than they were in previous years.

The bottom line is that with faithful implementation and giving the standards time to work, Kentucky is seeing solid academic gains. While implementation and the upcoming first round of assessments will undoubtedly lead to concerns and debate, Ohio should take a page out of Kentucky’s book and practice patience and commitment: Implement faithfully, revise carefully, and give the standards (and Ohio educators) time to work. 

Jessica Poiner
Jessica Poiner is an education policy analyst in the Fordham Institute’s Columbus office. She was a 2011 Teach For America corps member who worked and taught in Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District.