Are Kansas schools improving or failing? Both, because expectations keep rising

Are Kansas schools improving or failing? Both, because expectations keep rising

The following was a presentation to the Kansas State Board of Education, April 16, 2019

The Kansas constitution calls for a system of public education and other institutions to provide for intellectual, educational, vocational and scientific improvement. In addition, the Kansas Supreme Court has set seven standards for adequate funding, including support to the provide:

“Sufficient training or preparation for advanced training in either academic or vocational fields so as to enable each child to choose and pursue life work intelligently; and

“Sufficient levels of academic or vocational skills to enable public school students to compete favorably with their counterparts in surrounding states, in academics or in the job market.”

So, how have we been doing?


According to the U.S. Census, since 1940, the percent of Kansans over 24 who have completed high school has tripled, from less than 20 percent to over 90 percent in 2017. Kansas had always exceeded the U.S. average.

The percent of Kansans with a four-year degree has increased six-fold since 1940, from five percent to over 33 percent in 2017.

Since 1990, high school completion in Kansas has risen from just over 80 percent to over 90 percent and improved for each major racial/ethnic group in Kansas, although disparities remain.

Since 1990, four-year degree completion has increased from about one-in five Kansans to one-in-three, and also improved for each group. For example, African-American college degree attainment has doubled from 11.6 percent to 23 percent.

These are long-term population trends for adults over 24. We also see improvement for younger Kansans aged 18-24, those most recently leaving the K-12 system. Their numbers increased by more than 30,000 since 2005, but the number without a high school diploma dropped by over 5,000; the number with no postsecondary education stayed about the same, and the number of any college up to a bachelor’s degree or higher increased by nearly over 35,000.

These improvements have a direct impact on the state’s economy and individual prosperity. Kansans on average earn more the higher educational credential they have.

Specifically, those with a high school diploma earn about $26,000 per year, with high school only $30,000; up to two-years of postsecondary $35,000; a four-year degree nearly $50,000; and a graduate or professional degree over $61,000. If Kansas had the same number of people with earnings as in 1990, but they were at 1990 education levels, Kansans would earn about $7 billion less per year.

Note: “Some college” increase those who have any postsecondary credits but have not necessarily complete any credential. Therefore, Kansas may appear close to meeting the goal of about 70 percent of the population with more than a high school diploma, but part of this 65 percent includes those who started a program but did not complete it.

Educational levels have a clear connection to state prosperity. States with higher percentage of the population with a four-year degree tend to have higher per capita incomes.

These states also tend to have less poverty. The message is pretty clear: if your state wants higher incomes and less poverty, increase education levels.

Kansas ranks above the U.S. average for high school completion and higher, for any postsecondary education, and for four-year degree completion or higher both for adults over 24 and 18-24-year-olds.

In fact, last year KASB looked at Kansas’ ranking on 15 indicators of educational success. On a weighted average of these indicators, Kansas was 9th in the nation overall.

So, if Kansas educational outcomes are rising to an all-time high, rising among different population groups, and are generally higher than most states, what is the problem? Why did the Kansas Supreme Court find state funding adequate? Why do some claim that Kansas educational outcomes are flat at best, failing at worse?

There are three major reasons. First, in recent years there has been evidence that that Kansas education progress stalled, or that other states have been catching up. Second, there remain large disparities among student groups. Third, economic and social demands are growing as fast as or faster than educational progress.

For example, go back to adult educational attainment. Though above the U.S. average, Kansas ranks a three to six points lower for 18-24-year-olds than those over 25. If those trends continue, the ranking of 25 and older – most of the working age population – could fall.

It’s also important to remember that these are 2017 census data estimates, so 18-24-year-olds include graduating classes as far back 2010 and 2011. What does more recent data show?

The Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate, which basically means the percent of students who graduate “on time” has increased by about five percentage points since 2011 but was basically flat from 2013 to 2016. The national average has been catching up. Likewise, low income Kansas students increased about five points, but the national average has moved into a tie with Kansas.

The National Assessment of Education Progress is given to a small sample of students in each state every two years in reading and math at fourth and eighth grades and has two main benchmark levels. The average percent of Kansas students at the basic level or higher increased from 74% in 2003 to 80% in 2009 and 2011 but has dropped to 76% in 2017. Meanwhile, the U.S. average has been lower than Kansas, but has been steadily increasing.

Likewise the percent of Kansas students at the proficient level, which might be considered similar to levels three and four on the Kansas state assessments – a higher standard reflecting “on track” for postsecondary education – rose from 36% in 2003 to 40% in 2011, but has dropped to 38% in 2017, while the U.S. average has moved form under to 30% in 2003 to slightly above Kansas in 2017.

Like the Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate, there are big differences between student groups. For example, there is a gap of about 20 to 30 percentage points between low income and non-low-income students on the NAEP, both in Kansas and in other states.

Another indicator is college readiness, measured by the ACT test in Kansas. The percentage of students scoring high enough to meet “college-ready” benchmarks in English, math, reading and science rose from 25% in 2006 to 32% in 2015 but has dropped back to 29% in 2017 and 2018. Here, also, some subgroups of students lag behind. It’s important to stress that meeting all four benchmarks is a high standard. About 70% of Kansas students tested meet the English benchmark, about half reach the benchmark in math and reading and 40% in science.

Those numbers may sound low, but remember that only about one-third of Kansas adults have completed a four-year academic degree or more, and fewer than two-thirds have any postsecondary participation, which includes those who began but never finished a certificate or degree program.

That leads to State Board of Education’s postsecondary progress goals and report. With over 70% of Kansas jobs in the near future expected to require some credential beyond a high school diploma, and about half of those will need a four-year degree or higher. That challenge for Kansas education is that educational needs are higher than they have ever been, so even though educational attainment by Kansans is also higher than ever, it still falls short of required goals.

Final thoughts:

Kansas public schools have always been improving as more students reach higher levels than in the past. They have also always been failing because expectations keep rising. We are always challenged to do more.

Eighty years ago, completing 12 years of schooling was unusual and completing a college degree was exceptional. Now, we essentially expect every child to graduate from high school and two-thirds or more complete something behind high school.

This is a huge challenge because students are very different in their aptitudes, attitudes, family and community background and support. Students are different, but schools are expected to get the same results for every child – and often criticized when they do not.

Resources matter. For decades, Kansas school funding usually equaled or exceeded inflation, and educational results have both increased and were among the best the nation. In recent years, after Kansas funding fell behind inflation and other states, results have either slowed or dropped, and other states are catching up. Resources allow schools to provide more help for students who aren’t meeting higher standards.

But resources alone are not the answer. Schools also need clear goals based on new standards and expectations; and must redesign to help more students reach those standards in more individualized ways.

The increased commitment of state funding over the past three years and promised for the next four years plus the Kansans Can outcomes and school redesign should help move Kansas back into the lead for the success of every child.