For several years prior to the COVID pandemic, student achievement data in the form of state assessment results, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and ACT scores had been ticking downward in Kansas. The trend is likely attributable to the state board’s and KSDE’s deemphasizing student outcome success in terms of assessment results in favor of an increased emphasis on inputs to the system. In particular, the Kansans Can initiative measures success in terms of non-academic results, e.g., the number of students in pre-school and individualized plans of study. Also, ample attention is now placed on the non-measurable and questionable initiative known as social/emotional development.
Now the pandemic has created a new challenge in tracking real student success: a gap in assessment data. There was no state testing given in 2020, and the next NAEP has been postponed a year to the spring of 2022. Learning loss of students across the country is anticipated due to the inadequacy of distance learning, both in the lack of accountability it created and lack of accessibility on the part of much of the student population – particularly low-income and minority students.
According to a study by the National Academy of Sciences on learning loss due to the impact of distance education in the Netherlands, “(d)espite favorable conditions, we find that students made little or no progress while learning from home. Learning loss was most pronounced among students from disadvantaged homes.” The “favorable conditions” they speak of are equal education funding across the nation and the Netherlands is a world leader in broadband access. Yet, not surprisingly, researchers found the greatest loss came from low-income families.
We won’t know the extent of how that learning loss in Kansas is translated into state assessment results until later this year when 2021 test scores are reported by KSDE. Assuming assessment scores fall and achievement gaps will rise as predicted, you can bet the education establishment will collectively yawn, shrug their shoulders, and point an accusatory finger at the pandemic. As long as the federal money from the two stimulus packages holds out, not to mention the more than doubling of the non-pandemic related budget increase in Biden’s proposed budget, it will be business as usual for public education in Kansas. In their eyes, as long as the money is there, there is no incentive to change. And speaking of money, we know more money does not translate into higher student achievement.
This schism in vital student achievement information makes it difficult for education reformers like many in the Legislature and private reformers like Kansas Policy Institute to make changes in the way school districts conduct themselves and the way their performance can be evaluated. Since 2017, Kansas Policy Institute has developed and published an A-F report card for all school buildings, which now includes state-accredited private schools. The schools’ grades are determined by translating state assessment scores into letter grades. It is a single screen summary of each school’s performance, which includes per-pupil spending by building, an invaluable tool that is now required by federal law. The KPI report card is much simpler to access than the multi-screened, non-summarized, non-graded school “report card” published by KSDE. Unfortunately, the absence of state testing scores precludes Kansas Policy Institute from publishing an updated report card for the 2020 school year.
But there is hope. In the last legislative session, the tax-credit scholarship program for low-income students was widened. And the expansion of school choice through the establishment of an ESA (educational savings account) program gained a substantial foothold and is closer to becoming a reality.
As the effects of the COVID nightmare wane, it’s time to start seeing the glass as half full.