Today the Wichita Eagle carries another op-ed that argues that a relatively low level of student achievement should be deemed proficient, and that Kansans should therefore be proud of our schools. This op-ed was signed by a number of Sedgwick and Butler county school district superintendents.
As have other writers, the superintendents criticize the Kansas Policy Institute for placing a series of ads in Kansas newspapers. The superintendents claim that KPI “included data that was used out of context, completely misrepresenting the truth.”
When Kansas schoolchildren are tested using the Kansas state tests, results are categorized into one of five categories: Exemplary, exceeds standards, meets standards, approaches standard, and academic warning. Each of these categories has a definition. In its ads, KPI chose to present the number of students who fall into the two highest categories. The Kansas school bureaucracy — including these superintendents — argues that KPI should have also included students in the third category.
That’s what the disagreement is over: where to draw the line that we consider proficient. Where is the line that divides proficient from not proficient?
As explained in In Kansas, public school establishment attacks high standards, we’ve learned that the Kansas public school establishment wants Kansans to be proud of the number of students who are sufficient, who usually understand, and are able to use some problem-solving techniques.
KPI, on the other hand, wants to call attention to the much smaller number of students whose knowledge is well-developed, who are accurate, and usually use multiple problem-solving techniques.
This is not taking data out of context. It is not misrepresenting the truth, as the superintendents claim. It is simply calling for a higher standard than what school administrators want to be judged by.
And if we’re concerned about our national security, we need more students to be in the two highest categories of achievement. That’s right — a recent report by the Council on Foreign Relations concludes that U.S. schools are so bad that they pose a threat to national security.
We also have to question the validity of the Kansas tests. The superintendents write: “As Kansas Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker wrote in a recent commentary, performance trends on state assessments show that we are moving in the right direction.” They’re right. On tests administered and controlled by the state, student scores are rising. But on other measures that the state doesn’t control, the same trend is not present. An example is on the federal National Assessment of Educational Progress. On that test, scores for Kansas students are largely flat over the past years. In some years small gains are recorded, and in some years there are declines.
How can it be that one one series of tests scores are rising, but not on others? Kansas school administrators don’t have a good answer for this. But there is a good reason: The Kansas test scores are subject to manipulation for political reasons.
It’s bad enough that these superintendents defend low standards on tests of questionable validity. But misusing data — in the same article that they accuse others of doing so — is another matter.
The superintendents cite DeBacker’s recent opinion piece on the editorial page of the Wichita Eagle: “Since 2001, the percentage of students statewide who perform in the top three levels on state reading assessments has jumped from about 60 percent to more than 87 percent. In math, the jump has been from just more than 54 percent to nearly 85 percent.”
There’s a problem here that DeBacker and the superintendents ignore: In 2006 Kansas implemented new tests, and the state specifically warns that comparisons with previous years — like 2001 — are not valid. A KSDE document titled Kansas Assessments in Reading and Mathematics 2006 Technical Manual states so explicitly: “As the baseline year of the new round of assessments, the Spring 2006 administration incorporated important changes from prior KAMM assessments administered in the 2000 — 2005 testing cycle. Curriculum standards and targets for the assessments were changed, test specifications revised, and assessed grade levels expanded to include students in grades 3-8 and one grade level in high school. In effect, no comparison to past student, building, district, or state performance should be made.” (emphasis added.)
Despite this warning, DeBacker and the superintendents make an invalid statistical comparison. This is not an innocent mistake. This is an actual example of — turning the superintendents’ quote on themselves — “data that was used out of context, completely misrepresenting the truth.”
It’s one thing for teachers union officials to distort facts to defend the current system of public education. Their job is to deflect attention from the truth in order to defend a system that is run for the benefit of adults, not children and taxpayers.
But we should expect more from school superintendents and the Kansas Commissioner of Education. We should expect the truth — an honest assessment — and we’re not getting that.