(The Sentinel) — Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson told the State Board of Education last week that “competent is a made-up term that the federal government makes us define.”
Watson and others at the Department of Education are well aware of this, but this is just the latest example of state officials misleading people about low student achievement in Kansas.
The report comes from Topeka Capital-Journal reporter Rafael Garcia, who tweeted Watson’s quote during the Feb. 14 school board meeting. A video recording of the board meeting is available here. The statement from the commissioner comes shortly after the 26th minute.
“Expert” is not a made up term. In fact, the Kansas Department of Education (KSDE) has assigned performance categories called “proficient” in previous iterations of the state assessment, as shown in Table 2 from Removing Barriers to Better Public Education. KSDE later dropped easily understood terms like “competent” and “advanced” with labels like “Meets the standard” and “Level 1”.
Garcia says Watson made this statement in response to claims that Kansas students are not “competent.” She said Watson told the board she can easily move to lower her standards of competency as other states have done. But that wouldn’t be the right thing to do, she said. (This is classic KSDE double talk; “competent” is made up, but we have high standards of competence.)
Several board members were upset that “the state’s high standards are being used to attack the success of K-12 public schools outside the boardroom, particularly in the Kansas Statehouse.”
Translation: Board members are appalled that lawmakers and parents learn about consistently low performance levels. And instead of taking action, some board members want to dismiss the issue with deceptive comments.
Both are true: standards are high and performance is low
The “high standards” charade has been debunked many times, most recently in Giving Kids a Fighting Chance with School Choice. The following excerpt references a presentation by State School Board President Jim Porter to the K-12 House Budget Committee last year.
Porter referred to a slide in a presentation of a National Evaluation of Educational Progress report showing that Kansas has higher state proficiency standards than most states. According to the NAEP mapping study, performing competent in the Kansas state assessment is higher than what NAEP considers competent in three of the four cases (ie, fourth grade reading and math; eighth grade reading and math).
Here are the implications of the NAEP mapping study in a practical example. In 2019, the state evaluation showed that 29% of eighth graders were proficient in the English language arts, and the 2019 NAEP results showed that 32% of Kansas eighth graders were proficient in reading. So, since Kansas has a higher level of proficiency in this measurement, it’s fair to say that the state’s assessment result of 29% is likely at or slightly above 32% from a national perspective. But that’s not at all what Porter told the commission: “We’ve set our rating scores [proficiency levels] significantly higher than many other states because we want that to be a challenge goal. So, when you hear that X% of students are at or above able-bodied and we should compare that to, well, typically Florida, you need to see where those rates are.
Porter’s response had nothing to do with the question Rep. Williams asked, and his reference to Florida implies that he’s either knowingly deceptive or horribly misinformed.
States’ performance on the NAEP is not influenced by state evaluation standards. Students in every state take the same NAEP test, and it’s fair to compare results at face value. In fourth grade reading for low-income students, 28% of Florida students were proficient in 2019, but only 20% of Kansas students were proficient. Porter’s reference to Florida is an attempt to dismiss its superior performance as a methodological anomaly.
By the way, it is essential to distinguish between state “standards” and classroom activities. A standard determines what is expected of students to achieve a certain level of performance. For example, the 10th grade reading standard in Kansas expects students to “cite strong and insightful textual evidence to support analysis of what the text explicitly says as well as inferences drawn from the text.” The Department of Education determines appropriate “reduced scores” on the state placement test that coincide with specific definitions of achievement such as “proficient”; it’s similar to a teacher setting the low score for an “A” on a test to be 90% or higher. In terms of the NAEP mapping study, it would be like NAEP saying 90-100 is competent, but Kansas uses a scale of 94-100.
Here are some examples of low achievement that education officials are trying to suppress:
The Kansas Department of Education and the State Council have purged state assessment descriptions of embarrassing terms like “below grade school” and to give the impression that every student is well on their way to college and career (with limited, basic, effective, or excellent understanding of material).
But no amount of rotation can obscure the fact that state tests show performance was declining before the pandemic, and performance has never been as high as parents have been led to believe. As they say, don’t try to tell me it’s raining outside while your dog darts over my boots.
Sadly, Watson’s attempt to excuse underachievement is just the latest in a long line of education officials — deliberately or accidentally — misleading parents and legislators, de-emphasizing academic literacy and even ignoring state laws designed to fill gaps in achievement and improve outcomes for all learners. We tell many of these stories in Giving Kids a Fighting Chance with School Choice. Email me at [email protected] to get a free copy; then you’ll understand why we believe parents can’t count on public school administrators to address the achievement crisis.