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Diane DeBacker: Pride in Kansas public schools is well-placed

  • Published Monday, March 19, 2012, at 6:32 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, March 20, 2012, at 6:41 a.m.

Kansans are proud of the quality of their public schools, and a steady and continuing increase in student performance over the past decade has given us ample reason for that pride.

Unfortunately, faith in a number of our schools may have been shaken recently because of misleading information being widely shared by a private organization that is focused primarily on tax reduction.

The issue at hand is whether students who demonstrate satisfactory comprehension of grade-level material in reading, and who perform consistently and accurately on most grade-level tasks in math, should be considered proficient. In Kansas, they are.

Let’s be clear about what “proficient performance” means. Our state is under a mandate in the form of the No Child Left Behind legislation to ensure that all students, regardless of challenges or abilities, are proficient in reading and math by 2014. Given that mandate, our state needed to determine the foundational level at which students should be considered passing grade-level expectations. In Kansas, students performing in the top three of Kansas’ five performance levels on state assessments are considered proficient.

Information published by the group in question reflects performance only for students at the 11th grade, and only performance at the state’s top two performance levels – “exceeds standards” and “exemplary.” The group left out students at the “meets standards” performance level, arguing that the definition for performance at that level is somehow subpar and should not be considered proficient. This argument demonstrates a lack of understanding of the process by which these performance determinations are made.

The process to determine the performance levels relies on education and content-related experts who provide their best judgment on what constitutes “passing” performance. The process also includes a final review and approval from the U.S. Department of Education.

Kansas educators, along with national assessment experts, determined at what level students displayed proficient performance, and also identified at what level students exceed those expectations and at what level they demonstrate exemplary performance.

Should we disregard the judgment of experts and rely instead on those with no education background or expertise to set those levels? I don’t believe that would be in the best interests of Kansas education, or Kansas students.

I realize, as do the educators in our schools, that there is progress to be made in student performance in Kansas. We would love to see all of our students exceeding standards, and certainly the instruction in our schools is geared toward that goal. Performance trends on state assessments show that we are moving in that direction.

Since 2001, the percentage of students statewide who perform in the top three levels on state reading assessments has jumped from about 60 percent to more than 87 percent. In math, the jump has been from just more than 54 percent to nearly 85 percent.

We’re also making progress moving students out of the lowest performance levels and into the highest levels.

Kansas education is adopting best practices that will build on its successes and continue to improve student achievement.

I am extremely proud of the educators in our state, of the performance of our students, and of the support and dedication we have from our families and communities. Kansas education is strong, and I can confidently state that we are on the right path to high achievement for all Kansas students.

Diane DeBacker is Kansas commissioner of education.

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