by Celia Llopis-Jepsen, Kansas News Service
Fewer than 40 percent of Kansas students are on track to be academically prepared for college, community college or technical school as measured by their scores on the state’s standardized math and English tests.
Scores on English language arts tests went down for the second year in a row. About 38 percent of students scored proficient in that subject in spring 2017.
Math results dropped slightly after seeing a gain the year before. About 34 percent of students hit the state’s targets, according to results released Tuesday.
“If it remains that way, then it’s a serious concern,” said Jim Porter, chairman of the Kansas State Board of Education. “If it starts going up, which I anticipate that it will, then that just shows the trend is in the right direction.”
Kansas students take the state’s tests in third through eighth grades and again in 10th grade.
Education Commissioner Randy Watson said during the board’s meeting Tuesday in Topeka that the movement in scores is “not in the right direction.” In addition to not making gains in the rate of students scoring on track to be ready for college, the rate of students at the bottom of the four-tier scoring scale increased.
Watson said he expects to see gradual progress in coming years.
“We will not see, if we do this correctly, a dramatic increase like we saw under No Child Left Behind,” he said. “Because we don’t want to teach to the test.”
No Child Left Behind refers to a bygone federal law that Congress replaced in 2015. It fueled a rise in the prominence of standardized test scores to gauge school performance in an effort to shed light on and resolve systemic academic achievement gaps among certain student groups, such as children from low-income families and racial and ethnic minorities.
The law was unpopular because it set lofty goals tied to punitive measures for schools that failed to meet them. The new federal law is viewed as a step away from that punitive approach.
Kansas’ 2030 targets
The news that Kansas’ test scores are sagging comes just one month after the state submitted a school accountability plan to the federal government that sets aggressive targets for boosting math and reading scores by 2030.
Those goals would require schools to more than double proficiency rates by that year, which is when this year’s kindergarten class will graduate.
The proficiency rates for some groups of students — such as African-American children and English language learners — would need to triple by 2030 to hit the targets. That would require annual increases of more than 3 or 4 percentage points per year in the rate of kids scoring proficient.
The Kansas Association of School Boards, while calling the goal of boosting academic outcomes a moral imperative, has expressed concern that no state has achieved such high levels as measured by standardized testing.
Watson emphasized Tuesday that state math and English test scores are just one measure of student outcomes. The state is also looking at ACT scores, Advanced Placement scores, dual-credit enrollment among high school students and higher education continuation rates, among other figures, to try to piece together a portrait of how Kansas schools and their students are faring.
About half of Kansas high school graduates attain college or career credentials or are enrolled in college in their first two years after leaving school, according to the state education department.
Test scores used to be higher
In 2014, Kansas switched to more rigorous state tests, reflective of a change in state standards that raised the bar for what concepts students should master in math and English classes at each grade level.
State education officials have expressed hope that improving academic rigor in math and English language arts will reduce the rates of students who need remediation once they reach college. They also hope to better prepare students for careers, regardless of whether they plan to pursue college after graduation.
As predicted by state education officials, the switch to the new standards, called the Common Core, led to a steep drop in the rates of students hitting the higher targets. The Common Core targets were designed to indicate whether a child or teenager is on track for being academically prepared for college by the time he or she graduates high school.
Prior to the more rigorous state tests, about four out of five students scored proficient.
Celia Llopis-Jepsen is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @Celia_LJ. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to kcur.org.