Opinion: The nation’s and Kansas’ report cards
The “nation’s report card,” or National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), was released Oct. 30. Results show stagnant progress in what students know and can do on the national level and a disappointing decline in Kansas scores.
NAEP is administered every two years and is the only current assessment that compares scores across time and across states. The exam is based on a representative sample of students in Grades 4, 8 and 10 in each state with results reported at four levels of achievement: below basic, basic, proficient and advanced.
Kansas data reveal weakening performance overall and lower rates at the middle level than the elementary. The percentage of Kansas students’ scoring at proficient or advanced levels were smaller in math (33%), reading (32%) and science (34%) at Grade 8 compared with the Grade 4 level (math 40%, reading 34%, science 37%).
The total data set is massive and summary statistics drawn from data are, of course, subject to interpretation. Think-tanks, organizations and political activists already have offered varied explanations and implications.
The Urban Institute used NAEP scores and adjusted them to reflect demographic differences among the states. According to this adjustment, Kansas ranked among the bottom states in terms of decline. Across all states there was a rise in the percentage of students at below basic or basic achievement.
Analysts of these data suggest more attention be focused on students who are struggling. From this perspective Kansas schools need to continue the recent focus on helping children who have experienced trauma as well as increasing attention to pre-school programs, and students who are English language learners, who live in poverty and who need special education. But demographic and economic correlations simply reveal reality not destiny.
Kansas Association of School Board analysts looked at the NAEP data and were not surprised to see the lag in academic improvement, because during the Great Recession (2009 to 2017), nearly 2,000 school positions were cut statewide and multiple programs were reduced or eliminated.
KASB points out that 10 years ago, Kansas was one of the highest performing states, but currently ranks about the same as the national average. It will take time to implement improvements; KASB predicts NAEP scores to rise as court-ordered funding allows schools to add nurses, counselors and other personnel as well as adding and retaining highly qualified teachers.
Conservative analysts interpret the recent NAEP scores as too much money thrown at problems without meaningful accountability for schools and students, plus a lack of rigor throughout the curriculum. These are legitimate concerns; however, advocacy for adding charter schools and more tax credits while curtailing spending could set NAEP scores back even further. Cutting funds and privatizing public education cannot in themselves increase NAEP scores for the more than 90 percent of Kansas children now attending public schools.
Think of it this way: The ticket price can keep kids out of the theater, but the movie will play on. Taking constructive advice from varied perspectives — by truly increasing accountability and strengthening curriculum in tandem with building a high-performing educational team and supporting the most disadvantaged students — these together stand a good chance to increase NAEP scores. It’s time to work collectively across all groups and bring our students to the show. The world will keep moving on; will Kansas students join it?
— Sharon Hartin Iorio is dean and professor emerita of Wichita State University College of Education.