First Bell: Appeals court upholds ban on teacher-student relations; Debate about cut scores; Science education in Lawrence

The Kansas State Board of Education often deals with – or at least talks about – more issues in one of their monthly meetings than will fit into a single story. Often, the issues are dry and bureaucratic, but occasionally things fly by that deserve more attention than they get.

A few examples from this month’s meeting:

• There was a brief mention during the board attorney’s report about a Kansas Court of Appeals ruling in the case of State of Kansas v. Edwards, upholding a state law that bans sexual relations between a teacher and student in the same building.

The theory behind this law is fairly straight-forward. There are certain relationships in life where one individual, by virtue of his or her official, state-sanctioned position, has an inherent position of power over another. Teachers and students constitute one example. The same is true with prison guards and inmates.

This was a case, though, that seemed to challenge the common sense wisdom of that policy. Charles Edwards was a high school music teacher in the Wichita district. The young woman, identified only by her initials A.C.A., was over 18 years of age (well above the age of consent in Kansas) and already had a child of her own when the two engaged in sexual relations.

In fact, it was A.C.A. who drove to Edwards’ house for the encounter and brought with her a condom for him to use.

No matter, said the three-judge panel hearing the case.

Edwards appealed his conviction for violating the statute on “unlawful sexual relations,” arguing that the law violated his (and presumably her) fundamental right to privacy – specifically, the right to consensual, private sex.

The state couched the issue in much narrower terms, saying Edwards was trying to assert a right of teachers to engage in consensual, private sex with their students.

The Court accepted the state’s framing of the issue and rejected Edwards’ claim, saying the state had a rational basis for limiting whatever right Edwards tried to claim.

“When read in its entirety, it is clear that the intent of this statute is to prohibit sexual conduct of certain persons who have authority over other persons where the ability to freely consent is questionable,” the Court wrote.

Needless to say, the state board, and its attorney, were happy with that outcome.

• Does Kansas have low standards for passing state assessments in reading, math, science and social studies?

Officials at the State Department of Education spend a lot of their time trying to dispel what they say is a myth about the Kansas state assessments.

It’s an argument often voiced conservative board member Walt Chappell of Wichita, who takes much of his information from the conservative Kansas Policy Institute think tank, a frequent critic of the state’s current school funding system.

Chappell has been the resident contrarian on the board for the last four years. Whenever there is a 9-1 vote on the board, there’s a pretty good chance he’s the 1. And when a motion dies for lack of a second, there’s a good chance it’s one of his motions.

According to the criticism, a high school student only needs to get half the questions on the math test correct in order to qualify as proficient. For reading, it takes only 68 percent. Science and history/government tests have even lower thresholds.

That sounds shocking, especially for people who only know about testing from their own experience in high school, where often it takes 90 percent or better to score an A; 80 percent for a B; and 70 percent for a C.

The problem, testing experts at the state will say, is that the state assessments aren’t designed like the typical chapter tests most of us took in school. They’re an entirely different animal.

I asked a couple of their experts if they could help me explain in a paragraph or two what the difference is, or how the cut scores are determined. Their initial response was, “Good luck with that.”

But it boils down to the fact that the state has written standards in each subject that spell out what a student needs to demonstrate in order to qualify as meeting standards, exceeding standards or “exemplary.” The tests are written in direct alignment with those standards. And in the areas of reading and math, they are peer-reviewed by the U.S. Department of Education.

In short, they argue, the scores students achieve are accurate reflections of whether or not they have measured up to the standards.

During a discussion on an entirely different topic, Chappell offered yet another motion Wednesday to convene a panel to raise the cut scores for various tests. Predictably, died for lack of a second.

• The lead story this week was the report by Superintendent George Griffith from the Wakeeney school district in Trego County, whose study found that nearly one in five elementary teachers in Kansas and surrounding states are not really even teaching science anymore, although they’re still required to record grades on student grade cards.

I couldn’t wait to get back to Lawrence to talk with local folks here to get their thoughts. My first contact was Adam Holden, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning in the Lawrence school district.

Do teachers in Lawrence still teach science? Absolutely, he said.

Was he surprised to learn that many teachers elsewhere are not, or that they’ve cut way back? Not really.

It’s undeniable that teachers have been pressured to spend more time on the “high stakes” subjects of reading and math. Since passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001, student test scores in those subjects have real consequences, up to and including the firing of teachers and leadership in a building or district that persistently under-performs.

Holden said that’s why Lawrence officials were glad to see the state shift to the new Common Core standards in reading and math, which do more to integrate those subjects with science, social studies and other areas of learning.

Lawrence schools have what Holden called a “robust” science curriculum for grade schools, K-5. It’s called the FOSS system, and includes self-contained, project-based kits that teach various concepts.

The Lawrence district recommends that elementary teachers spend an average of about 40 minutes per-day on science instruction, although how they allocate that is left to the discretion of building principals and individual teachers.

If you want to see for yourself how effective the science curriculum is, district officials urge you to check out this year’s Science and Engineering Fair, scheduled for Feb. 8-9 at Southwest Middle School.

• Do you have news or information about local school-related events? Call me at 832-7259, or email