A review of Kansas educational indicators and outcomes shows that measures generally trended up during the 2000’s, when educational funding was rising faster than inflation. From 2010 to 2017, when funding lagged behind inflation, education indicators generally slowed or reversed.
Over the past 15 years, per pupil funding trends have been very different. The average change in total Kansas per pupil funding for each four-year period between 2003 and 2010 was over $1,300, adjusted for inflation. From 2011 to 2018, the average funding declined an average of over $400 for each four-year period, adjusted for inflation. (A four-year funding change was used to reflect the longer-term impact of funding over several years on each year’s cohort of students measured, rather than year-to-year changes only.) In 2018 and 2019, funding was again increased by the Legislature in response to the Gannon school finance lawsuit; student performance data for those years is only beginning to be available.
As the table above shows, several measures of student outcomes have been used over that period of time. Although some of the measures changed during the period, such as the graduation rate calculation and state assessments, trends can observed in each measure.
Graduation rate. Prior to 2009, Kansas reported a graduation rate used by the National Center for Education Statistics. That rate rose from 87.7 percent in 2003 to 90.3 percent in 2006, then generally flattened. Kansas and other states moved to a new method of calculating graduation rate, based only on those students who graduate in four years, beginning in 2010. That rate improved over 5 percent from 2010 to 2015 but has slowed since.
State Assessments. Kansas has tested students in most grade levels in reading and math annually since the mid-1990’s, but the assessment has changed several times. Under the version used from 2007 to 2013, the average percent of students scoring at the minimum standard rose from just under 80 percent in 2007 to nearly 87 percent in 2012, before dropping in 2013.
Kansas switched to a new testing system beginning in 2015 (no valid tests were recorded in 2014). However, the percent of students testing at the minimum “grade level” standard dropped from about 80 percent in 2015 to just over 70 percent in 2018.
National Assessment of Educational Progress. Kansas, like other states, participates in NAEP, which tests a small sample of students in reading and math at fourth and eighth grade only. The test is given only in odd-numbered years. All states began participating in 2003 under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. NAEP reports two main benchmark levels: basic and proficient.
From 2005 to 2009, the average percent of Kansas students scoring at “basic” increased from nearly 76 percent to over 80 percent, then remained at about that level until 2013, then dropped to 75 percent in 2015, where it remained in 2018.
Likewise, from 2005 to 2009, the percent of Kansas students at the more advanced “proficient” level increased from 35.8 percent to over 40 percent, leveled off until 2013, then dropped to 36.1 percent in 2015 before rising to 38.2 percent in 2017.
Note that NAEP tests of a small sample of Kansas students at just two grade levels every other year increased in the 2000’s and declined in the 2010’s as did state assessments of all students grade 3-8 and once in high school, but did not increase or decrease as much as the state assessments.
ACT College Readiness Test. The ACT test begin identifying “benchmark” scores indicating readiness for college courses in 2006. Since that time, the percentage of Kansas graduates taking the test has remained around 75 percent. (This will change in 2019, when Kansas will offer the ACT test for free to all students.) The percent of those students who met the college ready benchmark in all four subjects tested (English, math, reading and science) increased from 25 percent in 2006 to 32 percent in 2015, but has declined to 29 percent in the past two years (2017 and 2018).
In summary, each of these measures showed improvement prior to the 2009, when K-12 funding was increasing more than inflation, and each has declined or leveled off when funding was below inflation most years. However, the change in direction did not begin immediately.
Most school leaders agree it may take several years for major changes in funding to have an impact on education outcomes, in part because education is a cumulative experience. State assessments and ACT tests for 2018 were given without even a full school year under additional school funding that began flowing in that year. Furthermore, there are many factors in addition to funding that influence student achievement, including decisions the school can make and family and social circumstances over which schools have almost no control.
Over time, however, funding has an clear impact for two major reasons. First, it influences learning directly through the quality of staff that can be attracted and retained (salaries and benefits), improving staff skills (professional development), leadership and evaluation (principals, superintendents, other directors), assessment and technology support. Second, funding helps address non-academic issues like poverty, disability, health and other factors through various student support programs.
There are other important factors in studying the impact of funding on outcomes. One is the relative priority of outcomes. During the 2000’s, most districts believed the highest priority was rising state assessment results, which was the accountability tool measure on the No Child Left Behind Act. By the early 2010’s, however, there widespread criticism both nationally and in Kansas that NCLB has fostered an overly narrow “teaching to the test” mentality.
State tests were deemphasized in Every Student Succeeds Act which replaced NCLB, and the Kansas State Board of Education’s Kansans Can Vision focuses on early childhood, social-emotional needs, career plans of study, graduation and postsecondary success. A new measure introduced by the State Department of Education to measures postsecondary success shows a postsecondary effective rate rising from 44.5 percent in 2012 to 48.9 percent in 2016. However, because this measure looks at student postsecondary participation and completion in the first two years of graduation, the data will always lag several years behind the most recent graduating class. (Here is previous post on the postsecondary effective rate, and here is a direct link to Kansas State Department of Education information.)
Another factor is the changing needs of students. Compared to 15 years ago, more students come from low income families, are more diverse and have more intensive mental and physical health needs. Because of the additional learning challenges these students face, a decline in performance would be predicted if all else remained the same.
Kansas student achievement trends show just what is to be expected based on all these factors. When funding was increasing during the 2000’s, educational measures improved, especially on state assessments – the top focus of school accountability. After funding was reduced (inflation-adjusted), educational measures eventually began to decline or level off, with the biggest decline in state assessments. Graduation and postsecondary participation – the new top accountability focus – continued to make some slow improvement.