FRANKFORT, Ky. (WDRB) – Those calling for a delay in voting on new graduation requirements for Kentucky students are either intentionally mischaracterizing research into aspects of the proposal or not smart enough to understand it, interim Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis told reporters Tuesday.

A clearly frustrated Lewis pushed back against groups asking the Kentucky Board of Education to postpone a scheduled Wednesday vote on new graduation requirements, singling out the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, the Kentucky Education Association and Jefferson County Teachers Association.

 “Either they’re intentionally misleading or they don’t have the capacity to understand what the research literature says or what we’ve written in our proposal,” Lewis told reporters during a break Tuesday, saying the public should be “incensed” by the groups’ rhetoric.

“If I were a member of the public or an educator and I was going by what these groups have said about our proposal, I wouldn’t like our proposal either,” he added.

Other groups, including the Kentucky School Boards Association and the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents, have also requested that the state education board delay its vote so that more input could be provided, but Lewis said he had not seen or heard their statements calling for such a move.

“But what I’ve seen and heard directly from the three groups that I’ve mentioned previously has been shameful,” Lewis said.

The Local Superintendents Advisory Council, which is tasked with advising education commissioners on education policy, did not take a position on the proposed graduation requirements.

"There was considerable discussion around this regulation with no motion to approve," LSAC chairman Jerry Green, superintendent of Pikeville Independent Schools, wrote in a letter to Hal Heiner, chairman of the state education board. That letter is included in materials accompanying the proposed graduation requirements on Wednesday's meeting agenda.

Among his misgivings with public comments calling for a delay in Wednesday’s vote, Lewis said the groups failed to mention that a 30-day public comment period would follow board approval and that students have multiple opportunities to appeal failed proficiency exams, including developing a portfolio to demonstrate their competency.

“The idea that the state board taking action tomorrow would end this process is fictional, and it’s intentionally misleading the public in an effort to create some type of false panic and some false narrative about what we’re proposing to do when the reality is what we’re proposing to do is raise standards to better meet the needs of our kids,” Lewis said.

When asked whether the board would hold a vote on the new graduation requirements on Wednesday, Heiner said the panel will discuss them and that he senses “general support” among board members for “a minimum bar for a high school diploma in Kentucky.”

The Prichard Committee is part of a coalition – which includes Kentucky’s NAACP branches, the Louisville Urban League and Teach for America’s Appalachia chapter – that called for a delay in Wednesday’s scheduled vote on proposed graduation requirements.

They and others say they’re concerned with three aspects of the board’s planned graduation requirements: requiring students to pass reading and math assessments before advancing at certain grade levels, mandating that students demonstrate transition readiness before graduation and eliminating Algebra II as a required math course.

Ryan Davis, who sits on JCTA's board of directors, said Lewis's comments show that "he needs to take more time to try and make his case and maybe listen to the case that other groups are trying to make."

"If there's a misunderstanding, the only way to clear that up is through time and dialogue," Davis told WDRB News.

KEA President Stephanie Winkler said members of her group “have the capacity to understand what is presented to us in writing.”

“But communication goes two ways, and there has been little reach out by the Department of Education to the largest organization that represents public school employees since Commissioner Lewis took over, which is unfortunate that he fails to realize the depths and breadths of feedback he might get from actual practicing classroom teachers and/or students, for that matter,” Winkler told WDRB News.

Davis, who chairs the Committee for Mathematics Achievement that's administratively attached to the Kentucky Department of Education, said the committee was given its first opportunity for feedback on the proposed graduation requirements after the board's first reading in August.

"The feedback timeline, in my opinion, has been extremely accelerated," Davis said. 

Before his negotiated resignation in April, former Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt planned a series of town hall meetings throughout the state to discuss graduation requirements.

Days after he was named interim commissioner, Lewis scrapped that plan and opted for online feedback instead so KDE could cut costs and follow a speedier timeline in crafting and implementing them.

Winkler said holding town halls would have given Lewis a chance to hear directly from stakeholders.

“My question is why are they not meeting with high school students and asking them what they need in their classrooms,” she said.

The Prichard Committee released an examination of research that found the number of schools requiring an exit exam has dropped by 11 since 2011 and raised questions about the effectiveness of such tests on student outcomes.

Eric Kennedy, government relations director for KSBA, declined to comment on Lewis’s remarks beyond the group’s statement yesterday requesting a delay in Wednesday’s vote and additional time for feedback on the proposed requirements.

Many KSBA members voiced concerns with the funding that would be required to implement the new requirements and other initiatives from the state, Kennedy said.

“There are just so many changes being implemented right now in the classroom level in every district that at a certain point there becomes a concern of capacity to pull it all off with the people that we have, with the funding that we have,” Kennedy told WDRB News.

Reach reporter Kevin Wheatley at 502-585-0838 and kwheatley@wdrb.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevinWheatleyKY.

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