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Accountability in Kansas public schools

Critics of school choice say there is no accountability outside the traditional public schools. Here are the standards Kansas used to hold its schools accountable.

Are non-traditional public schools held properly accountable? Do charter schools and private schools escape the accountability standards states use for their traditional public schools, particularly in Kansas?

A standard argument against school choice is that charter schools and private schools are not held accountable. Underlying this argument is the assumption that parents have neither the time nor technical expertise to properly evaluate the schools their children attend. Only those with special training can do this, goes the argument.

This argument is troubling because it is often directed at parents of minority children, or parents who are from low-income households, or parents who may not be highly educated. Besides being elitist and bigoted, it doesn’t recognize the poor job that Kansas state education officials have done holding public schools accountable. Fortunately, Kansas school officials have corrected this, but it doesn’t make up for the years that Kansas purposefully used low standards to evaluate students, and told us students were doing well.

The former Kansas school standards for grade four reading, showing Kansas ranking low among the states.
The former Kansas school standards for grade four reading, showing Kansas ranking low among the states. Click for larger.
For years Kansas schools have used low standards to evaluate students. That is, Kansas was willing to say students are “proficient” at a much lower level of performance than most other states. Worse than that, during the 2005 to 2009 time period, Kansas actually weakened its standards.1 Coincidentally, this was during the time that Kansas courts ordered more spending in Kansas schools, and the legislature generally complied.

The new Kansas standards, however, are more in line with those of other states, and present a more truthful assessment of Kansas schoolchildren.

This is the finding of the EducationNext report After Common Core, States Set Rigorous Standards.2 EducationNext is a scholarly journal published by the Hoover Institution and the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School that is committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform.

The report compares the proportion of students considered “proficient” on states’ own exams with that of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), known as “The Nation’s Report Card.” The EducationNext report explains:

Data from both the NAEP and state tests allow for periodic assessments of the rigor of each state’s proficiency standards. If the percentage of students identified as proficient in any given year is essentially the same for both the NAEP and the state exams, we can infer that the state has established as strict a proficiency standard as that of the NAEP. But if the state identifies a higher percentage of students as proficient than the NAEP, we can conclude that the state has set its proficiency bar lower than that of the NAEP.

From 2003 to 2013 the Kansas standards were weak, earning letter grades ranging from “C” to “D” in the EducationNext reports. In another similar study, the Mapping State Proficiency Standards Onto NAEP Scales series from National Center for Education Statistics, Kansas standards were also found to be low compared to other states. NCES is part of the United States Department of Education and the primary federal entity for collecting and analyzing data related to education. It has not yet examined the 2015 NAEP and state exam scores.

Now, after comparing Kansas state assessments to the 2015 NAEP exam, Kansas earns a grade of “A” from EducationNext for the strength of its standards.

This grade of “A” does not reflect the performance of Kansas schoolchildren on tests. Instead, it means that the state has raised the definition of proficient to a higher level. A presentation by Kansas State Department of Education to the Kansas State Board of Education explains the relationship of the new standards to the former:

The Kansas College and Career Ready Standards are more rigorous than the previous Kansas Standards. The Mathematics test is more demanding than even the ACT and taken a year earlier. The assessment is also more demanding than the NAEP assessment. Kansas takes seriously the current issues of college dropout and remediation rates and feels higher standards are necessary to help remedy the problem.3 4

Kansas is not alone in making a change, according to the EducationNext report:

The results are striking: The last two years have witnessed the largest jump in state standards since they were established as part of the federal accountability program. Overall, 36 states have strengthened their standards since 2013, while just 5 have loosened them, and 7 have left their standards essentially unchanged.

This is a refreshing change for Kansas. It means that after many years of evaluating students with weak standards and low expectations, Kansas now has reasonable standards.

But who do we hold accountable for the years of having low standards and further weakening them, while at the same time telling us Kansas students were performing well on tests?


Notes

  1. Weeks, Bob. Kansas has lowered its school standards. https://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-kansas-schools/kansas-has-lowered-its-school-standards/.
  2. http://educationnext.org/after-common-core-states-set-rigorous-standards/.
  3. Kansas State Department of Education. Cut Scores for the Kansas Assessment Program. Archived at https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B97azj3TSm9MdTJhRVBEeEg3NTA/view.
  4. Also, see Kansas State Department of Education, Office of the Commissioner. Kansas College and Career Academic Readiness Asessment. http://www.ksde.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=KCpy0dXYuzc%3D&tabid=561&portalid=0&mid=3121.
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