When the Kansas State Board of Education receives a report on new reading and math test scores today, the results will look lower than what the public, teachers, parents and students are used to.
And that is actually very good news.
Kansas has made its reading and math tests much tougher by raising expectations, which means that performance will look lower. The new tests measure more than just knowing the basic facts of reading, writing and arithmetic. Instead, the tests are designed to tell if a student is learning to think critically and solve more advanced problems - to handle the more complex demands of college, technical education and the workplace.
These tests are different from the types of tests students have taken in the past, and certainly different from what most parents (and grandparents) experienced. Instead of asking students to simply give answers based on acquired knowledge, the new tests ask students to apply that knowledge to new situations. These skills take time to acquire. The test format is different from what students have experienced in recent years. However, the most important thing to remember is the new tests are designed to be more challenging.
Kansas: Rising Achievement, Rising Demands
Kansas has long ranked among the top states in education performance, such as national reading and math tests, high school graduation rates and preparation for college, and each of these measures has improved over the past decade. However, Kansas school leaders have recognized we will have to do even better to help students succeed.
For example, Kansas high school graduation rates are at an all-time high, but economic changes mean most jobs will require education beyond high school. In the 1970s, only about one-third of jobs required more than a high school diploma. By 2020, it is projected that over two-thirds of the jobs in the United States will require some type of postsecondary education: technical training or a two-year, four-year or advanced academic degree. In Kansas it will be even higher: over 70 percent - fifth highest in the nation.
The good news is Kansas education levels have been rising. From 2000 to 2013 (the most recent year statistics are available), the percentage of Kansans 25 and older with a two-year, four-year or advanced degree has grown from from 32 percent to 39 percent, the percent of Kansans with “some college” has held steady at 25 percent, and the number of students completing technical programs has increased, according to state higher education officials.
The educational level of Kansas adults should continue to rise because educational performance by Kansas students has also improved, including high school graduation rates, the National Assessment of Educational Progress fourth and eighth grade reading and math tests, and college preparation tests, such as the percentage of students meeting all four “college ready “benchmarks” on the ACT test. In fact, across 14 national indicators, Kansas ranks 5th in the nation.
It is worth noting that Kansas’ spending rank is 25th in the nation after adjusting for state cost of living differences, and Kansas spends less than any other state in the top 15 for student achievement.
Challenges Facing Kansas Schools and Students
However, being better than most states still leaves some big challenges.
First, too many students fail to prepare for college academic requirements and require remedial courses or simply drop-out of college without completing a credential. About 74 percent of Kansas graduating seniors take the ACT test and 93 percent of those students says they plan to enroll in college. However, about 20 percent of those tested self-report they did not take at least four years of English and three or more years each of math, social studies and natural science. Even students who do complete that “core” may not have passed the specific “college prep” courses required for qualified admission to state universities.
“College prep” courses are much more challenging than those required only for graduation. If students do not take courses to prepare for postsecondary education, they are much less likely to be successful in college. The new tests are designed to give parents, students and educators a better and earlier measure of student progress.
Second, as in all states, low-income, disabled, African American, and Hispanic students in Kansas lag behind in graduation rates and test scores, especially in preparation for college. Again, Kansas does better than most states with all groups of students, but it will be much harder to fill the educational needs of the state economy if these students do not make more progress.
This is particularly true when the numbers of low income, non-white students are growing rapidly. For example, Hispanic students were just 9 percent of ACT test-takers in 2011, but 13 percent in 2015. Only 15 percent of Hispanic students meet all four “college ready” benchmarks, compared to 37 percent of white students.
Improving educational levels is critical to individual economic well-being, as well as the state’s economy. Each higher level of educational attainment results in higher income, less unemployment, and less need for public assistance.
Third, academic preparation measured by state tests is not the only thing students need to be successful. Results of new Commissioner of Education Randy Watson’s “listening tour” of Kansas last Spring indicates Kansans place a high value on non-academic skills and characteristics. In addition, about one-third of Kansas jobs will NOT require postsecondary education. Many students are unlikely to want or even be capable of more rigorous academic courses. Kansas high school schools must provide programs to meet their needs, as well.
What It Will Take to Succeed
How do the new Kansas assessments address these issues? Because these tests are given in grades three through eight and in once in high school, educators, parents and students will have a better idea how well they are preparing for college and careers long before their junior or senior year in high school, and have more time to adjust plans, choose the right courses and seek additional academic help and career counseling if needed.
It is important to note the higher standards reflected in these tests does not mean Kansas education performance has declined or more Kansas students or schools are somehow “failing.” It does, however, mean more will be expected. Preparing for success after high school will require more challenging courses than many students - and parents - are used to. Many of these students will be the first in their family to attend college. It will require more from teachers and support staff, such as academic and career counselors. It will require more individualized instruction.
Finally, meeting these higher standards will require the right resources. The Kansas Legislature is setting out to develop a new school finance system while the Kansas Supreme Court considers legal challenges to both the previous system and the “block grants” that froze state operating funds for the current and next school year.
This give Kansas the opportunity to fund schools based on what it takes to educate a successful student, which is exactly the standard adopted by the Kansas Supreme Court through the so-called “Rose Capacities.” While those capacities, ranging from basic skills to civics, economic, health, the arts and preparing for postsecondary education, have not been completely defined, one thing is clear: the only states that outperform Kansas across all national measures of educational outcomes spend more money per per pupil and target additional resources at low income and other special needs students. These are the states Kansas will be competing against for high-paying, high-skill jobs.