A Sustainable Approach to High School Accountability in Kentucky

Every educator and school leader wants their school’s quality to keep improving so they can give students the best possible education and experience. But it’s impossible to improve without knowing where you stand.

Since 2016, the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) has required states to develop and administer school accountability systems to provide that measurement and drive improvement. Since ESSA was first enacted, the state of Kentucky’s accountability system has changed significantly to meet its requirements, as well as those laid out by a state school accountability statute

Kentucky’s new system — like other states’ — relies heavily on standardized assessment scores. While these assessments are valuable sources of information, that also puts significant pressure on students to score highly and on teachers to prepare them for success. Since Kentucky teachers are currently struggling with staff shortages and declining school funding, effective test preparation solutions are an essential tool to help schools achieve high accountability scores.

Required Assessments in Kentucky

Kentucky has had an accountability system based on state assessments since 1990. However, the assessments used have shifted over time. The primary state assessment system, the Kentucky Summative Assessment (KSA), is administered in multiple subjects to students in grades 3-8, 10, and 11. The assessments are delivered online and include multiple-choice, extended response, and technology-enhanced questions.

At the high school level, KSA assessments include:

  • Reading (Grade 10)
  • Mathematics (Grade 10)
  • Science (Grade 11)
  • Social Studies (Grade 11)
  • Editing and Mechanics (Grade 11)
  • On-Demand Writing (Grade 11) 

These end of course assessments are each aligned with coursework that is required to earn a high school diploma in Kentucky. However, passing scores on the KSA assessments are not required for graduation. 

Students receive both a scale (numerical) score and a performance level (descriptive) score for each assessment.  Performance levels track students’ attainment of Kentucky Academic Standards and are used within the state accountability system. Each subject area and grade level has a performance level rubric spelling out the knowledge and skills that students must demonstrate at each performance level. The four levels are: 

  • Distinguished — comprehensive understanding 
  • Proficient — broad understanding
  • Apprentice — basic understanding
  • Novice — minimal understanding

In addition to KSA assessments, all Kentucky students are required to take the ACT in grade 11. Meeting a benchmark score on the ACT is one way that students can demonstrate postsecondary readiness within the state accountability system. 

Those benchmark scores, which are meant to indicate that a student has a 50% chance of receiving a B or higher in a college-level course in that subject, are:

  • 18 in English
  • 22 in Math
  • 22 in Reading
  • 23 in Science

Calculating School Accountability Ratings in Kentucky

Since 2020, Kentucky law has required that schools and districts receive overall accountability ratings in the form of a color score (scores were assigned for the first time for the 2022-2023 school year due to COVID-19 disruptions). These color ratings, as well as subscores and demographic data, are publicly available on the state’s school report card website

Kentucky’s color ratings — red, orange, yellow, green, and blue, with red the lowest and blue the highest — are assigned per statute. The state formula uses six academic and school quality indicators

At the high school level, these are:

  • Reading and Mathematics KSA Results: School scores for Grade 10 Reading and Mathematics assessments (*see below). Each subject is weighted equally.

  • Science, Social Studies, and Writing KSA Results: School scores for Grade 11 Science, Social Studies, and Writing assessments (*see below). Each subject is weighted equally.

  • English Learner Progress: Progress toward English proficiency, as measured by students’ score changes on the English Language Proficiency Exam.

  • Quality of School Climate and Safety: Students’ perceptions of their schools, based on data from surveys administered alongside KSA assessments. 

  • Postsecondary Readiness: The percentage of students who meet one or more of a list of criteria for college or career readiness. Criteria include benchmark scores on standardized assessments (including the ACT) and receipt of certain career certificates.

  • 4- and 5-Year Graduation Rate: The average of the percentages of students who graduate in four years and in five years.

    *To calculate school KSA scores, each student’s performance level is converted to points (Novice: 0, Apprentice: 0.5, Proficient: 1, Distinguished: 1.25). These points are totaled and divided by the number of full-year enrolled students in that grade. 


Each school and district receives two scores for each indicator: a “Status” score and a “Change” score. Status scores, which range from “very low” to “very high” based on cut scores, are simply current-year results. Change scores, which range from “declined significantly” to “increased significantly,” measure the difference in scores between the current and prior year. It’s important to note that Change scores do not measure individual students’ progress — instead, they measure the school’s scores on a particular assessment from one year to the next. 

Each indicator’s status and change ratings are then combined (with equal weight) to arrive at overall Indicator Performance Ratings for each school or district. These ratings are publicly available.

Finally, Indicator Performance Ratings are weighted using the state accountability formula (below). That final number translates to school and district color ratings using state-assigned cut scores.

  • 45%: Reading and Mathematics KSA Results
  • 20%: Science, Social Studies and Writing KSA Results
  • 20%: Postsecondary Readiness 
  • 6%: 4- and 5-Year Graduation Rate
  • 5%: English Learner Progress
  • 4%: Quality of School Climate and Safety 

Current State of the School Accountability System in Kentucky

In recent years, Kentucky has made several major changes to its assessment and accountability systems. Prior to 2019, the state used a different assessment system, the Kentucky Performance Rating for Educational Progress (KPREP), and in 2020 the government added the color grade requirement to the accountability system (among other adjustments). Those shifts, combined with COVID-19 pandemic disruptions to testing, mean that Kentucky currently lacks consistent longitudinal data. 

The state published Status scores for school performance indicators for the 2021-2022 school year, but Change scores — and color grades — were not assigned until the 2022-2023 school year. 

In the 2022-2023 school year, the state averaged a yellow color grade overall. However, KSA results from spring 2023 show that there is significant room for growth across the state in all subjects. At the high school level:

  • 44% of students scored Proficient or Distinguished in Reading
  • 33% of students scored Proficient or Distinguished in Mathematics
  • 10% of students scored Proficient or Distinguished in Science
  • 37% of students scored Proficient or Distinguished in Social Studies

Compared to 2022 scores, these scores were lower in science and mathematics, slightly higher in social studies, and flat in reading. 

Additionally, less than half of students achieved a benchmark score on the ACT, one of the potential criteria for demonstrating postsecondary readiness. 

  • 49% of students scored 18 or above in English
  • 36% of students scored 22 or above in Math
  • 23% of students scored 22 or higher in Reading
  • 24% of students scored 23 or higher in Science

While these scores showed a slight improvement over prior years, they remain below national averages

Kentucky educators are still adapting to the state’s new accountability system, but some have expressed concern that comparing schools in this way could unfairly punish schools and districts with a higher percentage of low-income students, who tend to receive lower assessment scores. Educators in these schools and districts may also face additional resource barriers, making it all the more difficult to carve out dedicated time for test prep. 

What Are the Impacts of School Ratings in Kentucky?

Since Kentucky’s school and district grades are publicly available, they can impact families’ enrollment decisions and even raise or lower local property values. However, the state does not currently offer performance incentives for high ratings.

In compliance with federal requirements, Kentucky uses its accountability system to identify the state’s lowest-performing schools for additional intervention and funding. These schools fall into three categories:

  • Targeted Support and Improvement (TSI): Schools in which one or more student groups (e.g., racial or ethnic groups, low-income students, or English language learners) have scored at or below the lowest 5% of the state for three subsequent years.

  • Additional Targeted Support and Improvement (ATSI): Schools that were identified for TSI in the previous year and continue to have one or more student groups scoring at or below the lowest 5% in the state. 

  • Comprehensive Support and Improvement (CSI): Schools that have overall scores in the 5% of the state, have a graduation rate below 80%, or fell under ATSI status for at least three years.

Schools that receive a TSI designation must submit a school improvement plan for approval to the local board of education. The district must also provide additional support if they receive an ATSI designation. 

If a school gets a CSI designation, the Department of Education will conduct an audit to identify the causes of its low performance and provide a summary of issues and a plan to address them. The school must then contract with an approved turnaround vendor funded by the state to implement changes and meet several other criteria to “exit” the designation. 

Solutions for Improving School Accountability Ratings in Kentucky

Since high school accountability ratings in Kentucky depend heavily on students’ KSA scores, the simplest way to improve school ratings is to raise assessment scores. However, equipping students to achieve high scores on KSA exams requires focused practice of core concepts and the specific test-taking skills necessary to succeed on standardized assessments. This is a hefty lift in the context of the state’s ongoing teacher shortage, which has forced many educators to take on larger classes, reducing the time they have available to coach individual students through their challenge areas. 

MasteryPrep for Kentucky is an equitable, mastery-based learning solution that helps schools and districts improve KSA performance without taking time away from essential classroom instruction. Comprehensive programs are available for each KSA subject, with curriculums closely mapped to Kentucky Academic Standards to deepen students’ understanding of core material as well as the skills and techniques they’ll need to achieve a high score. 

MasteryPrep’s all-in-one solutions don’t require any teacher lesson planning or preparation — everything educators need is included. Students start with a diagnostic pre-test at the start of the year to give teachers a snapshot of existing strengths and challenges. Then, students move on to a SnapCourse, an engaging digital tool designed to keep students tuned in with short, interactive videos and learning pathways that adapt to their unique needs. 

Teachers can choose to customize the content their students receive or to automatically generate a study plan based on the time available and the student’s profile. 

Students arrive at test day confident in their knowledge and prepared to take on the specific types of questions included in KSA assessments — which also helps reduce their stress and anxiety. 

In addition to Kentucky-specific solutions, MasteryPrep solutions, plus onsite Boot Camps, are also available for the ACT.

Learn more about MasteryPrep programs for Kentucky

About MasteryPrep:

MasteryPrep provides mastery-based college readiness services and resources for the SAT®, ACT®, TSIA2, EOC, and WorkKeys®. MasteryPrep is the nationally preferred SAT and ACT prep provider of the Council for Opportunity in Education and licensed by ACT to include official ACT test questions in its programs. MasteryPrep partners with schools and districts to help level the standardized assessment playing field. MasteryPrep has ranked among the Inc. 5000 “Fastest Growing Companies” for six years and is a featured “Entrepreneur 360” company.


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