••• Education •••

SBOE/KSDE and Kansas Supreme Court see student success much differently

It’s hard to believe, but the latest decision in the Gannon lawsuit, Gannon VI, came down over five years ago – tempus fugit. That decision, along with its predecessor Gannon V in 2017, sent the Legislature scurrying to come up with what amounts to more than a billion dollars in new state funding to K-12 education. The purpose here isn’t to rehash the fact that there is no causal relationship between funding and achievement – that proposition has been debunked over and over again. The purpose here is twofold:

• to provide updated information that shows since the additional court-ordered spending was added, the “system that fails to provide approximately one-fourth of all its public-school K-12 students with the basic skills of both reading and math” (Gannon VI, p. 25) has exhibited even greater failure, and
• to show how the Kansas Supreme Court and the State Board of Education (SBOE)/KSDE are disconnected when it comes to interpreting student success.

The two graphs tell the story of the state assessment trends over the last five years. First, the black lines on both the math and ELA graphs represent the “one-quarter line” inferred from Gannon. What these graphs reveal is that not only were the “harder to educate” (a catch-all phrase created by the Supreme Court, see Gannon VI, p. 38) higher than 25%, but even the all-students category – no subgroups – have exceeded 25% in state assessments Level 1, the metric used by the court to justify all that additional state money to public schools.

From the 2016-17 school year to the 2021-22 school year, the amount of state aid – which does not include federal and local aid – rose from just over $4 billion to just over $5 billion, an increase of about 25%. Most of that increase was in direct compliance with the Supreme Court directives pursuant to Gannon V and Gannon VI. Total per-pupil spending increased 28%, from $13,225 to $16,993 during that period.

It is clear the data shows that despite that huge influx of state money, those “hard to educate” subgroups – low-income students, ELL students and special education students (SPED) – are now scoring worse on state assessments. Over 70% of ELL students scored in Level 1 in English language arts (ELA) in 2022, nearly two-thirds of special education students (SPED) scored in Level 1 in both math and ELA. Almost half of low-income are now in Level 1 in both subjects.

Yes, the pandemic – which forced the cancellation of the 2020 state assessment – has had an impact on state assessment scores. But prior to the forced closing of schools, the additional court-ordered money was not moving the needle on improving the outcomes of those “hard to educate” students. In fact, state assessment scores were trending downward prior to COVID.

Since KPI, along with many other scholars, has shown repeatedly that more money does not improve outcomes, why continue to beat this dead horse?

The SBOE and KSDE see success different than the Supreme Court.

It’s important to keep in mind that while the Supreme Court has declared state assessments as the sole determinant of student success, and thus ordering more spending based on that metric, the SBOE and KSDE are going to great lengths to distance themselves from that metric as a measure of student success.

This dissociation is in response to SBOE members’ complaints that certain legislators are claiming that too many kids are “failing” in school. If indeed these unsubstantiated objections are true, you can’t blame legislators for being upset for the never-ending low state assessment results. After all, the Kansas Supreme Court based their decision to order the additional taxpayer dollars on those very test results. It’s perfectly reasonable for any legislator to conclude that there isn’t any bang for the court-ordered buck and to be frustrated when they are told that state assessments – the basis for court action – aren’t really that important. New board member Danny Zeck put an exclamation point on the issue. After visiting several school districts, Zeck claims that students “think the assessments are a joke” and teachers/administrators have told him that the state assessments are “a waste of time.”

In response, the SBOE and KSDE have presented their own metrics and their own descriptors over the past several SBOE meetings to dispute those legislators’ assertions, those which also happen to run counter to the Supreme Court’s position.

For example, at the February board meeting, during a discussion concerning the importance of state assessment scores, Commissioner Watson said “all any assessment should be is information that you add to other information. It shouldn’t define.” He also stated, “(t)here are things other than that (assessments) that make up success.” Watson identifies three set of data – graduation rates, post-secondary success, and, reluctantly, state assessments – as the basis for his definition of success. In fact, in doing so, he claims “the vast majority of schools are hitting it out of the park.”

At that same meeting, he touted the changes in performance in one small district, Chetopa-St.Paul (USD 505) to make his point. Yes, USD 505 has made some modest gains in those categories in the past several years, which is a good thing, but Watson makes the mistake of extrapolating the USD 505 performance to the entirety of Kansas. A check of how public districts have actually performed during those years (see the above graphs) makes it hard to consider them “hitting it out of the park.” Even for Chetopa-St. Paul, it’s more like an infield single or a base on balls.

Additionally, Watson also stated that the reason such a high proportion of students score in Level 1 on state assessments is that the cut scores are so high. Really? I don’t recall that testimony during any Gannon arguments.

State board member Ann Mah best summarized (unknowingly) the disconnect between the SBOE and the Supreme Court. Mah said this: “Generally, they (assessments) are used two ways, its either a flashlight or a hammer and I think this board see these high stakes tests as a flashlight that works along with other measures of success for students…and that’s the appropriate way to do it. And other people see it as a hammer and the only measure of success, and it isn’t really helpful.”

Funny, but those “other people” as she calls them include a majority of the justices on the Kansas Supreme Court. Collectively, the justices have gone on record stating that state assessments are the only measure of success. That may change in future court rulings but I doubt many folks are holding their breath in expectation of a repudiation of Gannon.

Unfortunately for the students, families and taxpayers of the state of Kansas, both groups are wrong. The data proves that the additional money wrested from the taxpayers to give to public education has not improved the single metric the court recognizes as the definition of success. Furthermore, the metrics used by the SBOE/KSDE greatly distort student achievement. There is no rationalizing these incongruent definitions of student success.

I sincerely hope the state solicitor is paying attention because when the next time the public education cartel goes begging to the court for more money, it is incumbent upon the state to argue that the two organizations constitutionally obligated to oversee public education define student achievement in much different terms. It won’t be long until the public-school establishment comes back to the well, either through another Gannon decision or yet another different lawsuit, demanding more money based on low state assessment scores. I would love to see how Watson’s definitions of student success would be received by a court that made the one measure Watson and the state board downplays as the basis for would-be mandates for more money.

Given the understandable frustrations by legislators for spending more money and not seeing improvement in student achievement, should we be surprised that legislators are demanding a different way forward in terms of parental choice, similar to what has just happened in Iowa, Utah and Arkansas? Also, KPI polling reveals a majority of Kansans support school choice, not more spending.