By PETER HANCOCK, The Lawrence Journal-World
TOPEKA, Kan. ----- Kansas remained among the highest scoring states in the nation in 2013 on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP exam, but there are widening achievement gaps between racial groups and economic classes.
The test, sometimes called “the nation’s report card,” measures fourth- and eighth-grade student performance in reading and math. It is the one standardized test given uniformly to a representative sample of students throughout the country.
It is often used by state and federal officials as a barometer of how states compare with one another and how individual states are making progress over time.
According to figures released Thursday by the U.S. Department of Education, overall average scores in reading and math among Kansas students were virtually unchanged since the last NAEP exam in 2011, but they were still among the 10 highest average scores in the country across all categories.
“Our students and educators are working very hard in the classroom,” Kansas Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker said. “While it is reaffirming to see that Kansas students continue to outperform the national average, these results provide a very clear road map as to where we should be tailoring our efforts to make sure our children are ready to successfully compete in a global workplace."
Overall, Kansas has scored at or above the national average every year since the test began in the early 1990s, and has routinely scored above the national average each year since about 2000 when states were required to provide accommodations so students with disabilities could participate.
Among fourth-graders, Kansas was tied with five other states and the Department of Defense Education Agency for the fifth highest reading score.
Among fourth-graders, Kansas was tied with a number of other states for having the fifth highest average scores in both reading and math.
And among eighth-graders, Kansas was tied with other states having the ninth highest average reading score and the 10th highest average math score.
Scores are divided into three main performance categories: “basic,” which denotes partial mastery of the knowledge and skills needed for grade-level work; “proficient,” meaning solid academic performance; and “advanced,” or superior work.
But many education officials in the country, especially at the state and local level, are leery about the use of those words to describe individual scores. They argue that the NAEP exam is not aligned to any set of state standards and, therefore, does not accurately rate students according to how well they are meeting state and local educational standards.
Widening achievement gaps
Behind those numbers, however, is evidence of widening achievement gaps between racial and economic groups since 2009, when Kansas began making deep cuts in base per-pupil spending on public schools, especially in fourth-grade reading.
That may be politically significant because raising fourth-grade reading scores was a major part of Gov. Sam Brownback’s “Roadmap for Kansas” campaign theme when he ran for office in 2010.
“Being able to read is one of the greatest gifts we can give these children,” Brownback said in his State of the State address this year. “Yet 29 percent of Kansas fourth-graders can’t read at a basic level.”
That’s a reference to the 2011 NAEP scores. This year, the percentage was exactly the same, which is up one percentage point since 2009.
Among black fourth-graders, however, the percent scoring below basic has skyrocketed, from 44 percent in 2009 to 53 percent this year.
Among Hispanics, the below-basic rate has held steady at 45 percent over each of the three tests.
That compares with 22 percent among whites, the same as 2009.
Because the NAEP exam is given to a stratified random sample of students in each state, the reported scores contain a margin of error, similar to the results of a public opinion survey. As a result, scores that are close to each other are often reported as having no statistically meaningful difference.
Signs of improvement
Education Commissioner DeBacker, meanwhile, pointed to signs of improvement in other areas. Among the results for Kansas students, she noted:
• The percentage of fourth-grade students performing at NAEP’s “advanced” level in math grew from 7 percent in 2011 to 8 percent in 2013.
• The percentage of eighth-grade students performing at or above the NAEP “proficient” level in math rose from 40 percent in 2011 to 41 percent in 2013. Eighth-grade students performing at the advanced level in mathematics rose from 8 percent in 2011 to 10 percent in 2013, the highest percentage of Kansas students to reach that level.
• The percentage of fourth-grade students at or above the “proficient” level in reading rose to 38 percent.
Nationwide, federal officials said, the 2013 tests showed there has been steady improvement in the percentage of students scoring “proficient” or “advanced” in both subjects, across both grade levels.
For example, 42 percent of fourth-grade students nationally scored proficient or higher in math, up from only 13 percent when the test was first administered in 1990.
Federal officials also noted improvement since 2011 in scores among certain racial and ethnic groups.
Hispanic students showed gains in math scores across the board, as well as eighth-grade reading scores.
Reading scores also rose among eighth-grade white, black and Asian-Pacific Islander students. As a result, officials said, achievement gaps between racial and ethnic groups did not change significantly since 2011.