Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Ad campaign accuses Kansas schools of low academic standards

By PETER HANCOCK, The Lawrence Journal-World

The conservative think tank Kansas Policy Institute has been running ads the past couple of weeks asserting that the state has low academic standards in reading and math, an assertion that state officials have repeatedly dismissed.

The ads, which have been running in the Kansas City, Topeka and Wichita media markets, refer back to the KPI website, where viewers can see longer videos spelling out the group's case that Kansas has low standards.

KPI spokesman James Franko said the group's policy aim "is to give parents and student more freedom to achieve their individual educational goals - i.e. school choice in all of its forms - and make sure Kansas is spending its K-12 resources effectively and efficiently."

The phrase "school choice" generally refers to programs that offer students and parents a publicly funded alternative to the regular public schools in their area, either through vouchers to offset the cost of a private or parochial school, or "charter schools," which are usually public schools operated by outside groups or private companies that can be exempted from many rules and regulations that apply to public schools.

So far this year, Kansas lawmakers have turned back one such bill: Senate Bill 22, which would have established a scholarship program for certain lower-income students to attend private schools.

That bill failed to advance to final action in the House, but was then sent back to the House Education Committee, where it remains available to be advanced again.

Franko said the ads began running about two weeks ago and are scheduled to continue through "the next couple of days." That would take them right up to the start of the Kansas Legislature's wrap-up session.

In a nutshell, KPI asserts that Kansas schools are not preparing students for college or careers because it has low academic standards. For evidence, the group points to actions by the Kansas State Board of Education in 2002 and 2006 when, KPI says, the state "lowered" academic standards.

State officials counter that they did not "lower" their standards - that the level of performance needed to score in the "meets standards" category did not change - but the method of classifying scores was simply re-calibrated in 2002 to align with the new No Child Left Behind law. The standards were revised in 2006, and new assessments were written to go along with them.

But what the ads do not mention that the standards were revised again in 2010 when Kansas adopted the new Common Core state standards in reading and math, which are specifically designed for "college and career readiness."

"We did not lower our standards – not in '02 and not in '06," said Kathy Toelkes, spokeswoman for the Kansas State Department of Education.

Although she had not personally seen the ads, she said, "we're focused on where we're going. We adopted new standards in 2010 that raised the bar for students in terms of ensuring students will be college- and career-ready upon graduating from high school."

The ads point to a series of studies by the National Center for Education Statistics that attempt to compare state assessments from all 50 states with a uniform benchmark, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, exams.

State officials argue there are major differences between the NAEP test and the state assessments, the most important of which is that NAEP is not aligned to any specific set of educational standards.

Further, it's a test that is only administered to a random sample of students in each state, and therefore any comparison of scores between the tests requires a great deal of estimation.

Nevertheless, the reports do indicate that a student who scores at the "meets standards" level on a Kansas reading or math test, at either the 4th or 8th grade level, would only score at or below the "basic" level on the NAEP exam.

That, however, is also true for many states. In fact, according to the most recent (2009) study, no state has a proficiency standard equal to or greater than the NAEP standard in either 4th or 8th grade reading.

Massachusetts is the only state in the union where proficiency standards in math exceed the NAEP standards.