KASB analysis of new NAEP scores

Kansas student performance on national reading and math tests declined from 2017 to 2019, which will likely draw questions about school quality and funding. 

The National Assessment of Educational Progress tests a small sample of students in each state in reading and math at fourth and eighth grade every two years. Nationally, test scores were basically flat. 

While test scores are an important measure, education is a cumulative process and it will take time for improvements to follow new funding. School district leaders must be prepared, however, to explain the decline in NAEP scores. 

Kansas performance generally improved from the early 2000’s, when all states began participating in the NAEP as required by the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act. Kansas results peaked around 2009 and 2011 and have generally declined since. 

  • Fourth grade math: the percentage of students scoring at the basic level or above rose from 85 percent in 2003 to 90 percent in 2011, falling to 79 percent in 2019. 
  • Fourth grade reading: rose from 66 percent in 2003 to 72 percent 2009, falling to 66 percent in 2019. 
  • Eighth grade math: rose from 75 percent in 2003 to 80 percent in 2011, falling to 70 percent in 2019. 
  • Eighth grade reading: rose from 76 percent in 2003 to 80 percent in 2009, falling to 74 percent in 2019. 

Students scoring at the proficient level were generally about half the percentage as those at basic and above followed similar trends. The basic and above level on NAEP is somewhat similar to levels 2,3 and 4 on Kansas state assessments, sometimes considered a minimum or “grade level” benchmark, and proficient and above is somewhat comparable to levels 3 and 4, sometimes consider a “college ready” benchmark. 

In 2019, Kansas performance was almost exactly the same as the U.S. average. Ten years ago, Kansas was one of the highest performing states. 

Recent debates over school funding have focused on whether additional resources improve results. Kansas total and per pupil funding increased more than inflation from 2000 to 2009, lagged behind inflation from 2010 to 2017, and began increasing after the Legislature adopted a response to the Gannon school finance case.

Kansas spends less per pupil than the national average and has been declining compared to the U.S. average since 2009. 

Here are some key points to consider. 

While test scores are one indicator of academic achievement, the State Board of Education, parents and the public are putting much less emphasis on test scores alone. There is wide concern that the era of No Child Left Behind placed too much focus on test scores at the expense of teaching, preparing well-rounded students and meeting other social, emotional, health and civic concerns. 

As a result, school districts are using some of their new resources to address these other concerns. These efforts may not immediately improve tests scores, but they are more likely to help students be successful in the long run. 

NAEP is one of many measures of student success. Other indicators have improved over the past two years, including graduation rates, the State Board’s postsecondary effective rate (measuring students graduating high school on time and completing or enrolled in postsecondary programs two years after graduation) and postsecondary courses earned in high school. 

This shows schools are accomplishing a critically important outcome for Kansas — helping students pursue and succeed in postsecondary education, which in turn makes them much better prepared to succeed in life. Studies have shown our workforce will demand workers with post-high school credentials. 

It’s not surprising there is a lag in academic improvement. These tests were basically given to students about two-thirds of the way through the second year of increased funding after funding fell behind inflation for eight years (2009 to 2017). Over that time, educator salaries fell behind inflation, other states and other employers; nearly 2,000 positions were cut statewide even as enrollment increased; and numerous programs for students eliminated. 

School districts used new funding to stabilize and repair the challenges created during this eight-year period. These tests were given in the second year of the Legislature’s six-year plan to restore funding to 2009 levels (adjusted for inflation). 

Over the past two years, school districts added nearly $275 million for instructional programs; plus $54 million in student support programs like counselors, social workers and mental health programs; $25 million for instructional support, such as libraries and technology; and $28 million to school building principals, assistance principals and support staff. 

Districts have added more than 1,500 teachers, classroom aides and special education paraprofessionals, over 550 counselors, social workers, school resource officers and other student support positions, and added back jobs in maintenance, food service and transportation. 

Education is a cumulative process. Test scores did not fall for the several years after funding cuts began, and it will take time for improvements to follow new funding. It is important to note, for example, that part of the increase in state aid was for early childhood programs and all-day kindergarten. These programs impact students who will not be tested by NAEP until they are in fourth grade. 

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