September 21, 2012

Drop in test scores by African-American students alarms Kansas education officials

Kansas education officials say they plan to form a task force to look more closely at a precipitous drop in test scores among African-American students.

Kansas education officials say they plan to form a task force to look more closely at a precipitous drop in test scores among African-American students.

“Some people say one year of data is not a trend, but this is … an attention-getter,” Brad Neuenswander, deputy education commissioner, said Friday.

“It’s the first time we’ve seen a drop since 2000. … And it’s significant.”

A report released Tuesday showed the percentage of Kansas students meeting or exceeding standards on reading and math tests dropped for the first time in more than a decade.

But declines were most troubling among African-Americans, whose scores fell 8.2 percentage points from the previous year in reading and 5.3 points in math.

Declines also were significant among Hispanics, English language learners, students with disabilities and those who qualify for subsidized lunches.

Overall, Kansas scores dropped 1.9 percentage points in reading and 1 percentage point in math.

Wichita school officials said early data for African-American scores in Wichita are more positive.

Black students in Wichita raised their scores 1.9 percentage points in math and fell less than 1 percentage point in reading, said district spokeswoman Susan Arensman. Over the past five years, Wichita’s black students have gained nearly 7 percentage points in reading and 4.6 points in math.

“This is just one snapshot,” said Superintendent John Allison. “But when I look at our gains over those same periods compared to the state, our gains are greater than the state. That’s a pretty good sign that what we’re doing is working.”

Allison said he couldn’t point to specific measures that kept Wichita’s scores for African-American students from echoing the state slide.

“We focused on transforming our system to meet the needs of students, period,” he said. “We’re looking at the system as a whole and trying to put all the right pieces in place.”

Overall in Wichita public schools, students are 36 percent white, 31 percent Hispanic, 18.5 percent black and 14.5 percent other races or multiracial.

Statewide, students are about 68 percent white, 17 percent Hispanic, 7 percent black and 8 percent other races or multiracial.

Neuenswander, the deputy commissioner, said it’s too early to speculate about reasons for the lower test scores or what might be done to raise performance among ethnic groups and statewide.

“We still have a lot of work to do because this data is still so fresh,” he said. “But after so many years of growth and making gains in closing that (achievement) gap, it’s troubling.”

State Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker told Kansas Board of Education members this week that she plans to draw a panel from several districts and agencies, including the Midwest Equity Assistance Center, the Kansas African American Affairs Commission and the Urban League.

Neuenswander said a waiver that gives Kansas flexibility in meeting some provisions of No Child Left Behind — including a mandate that every student pass reading and math tests by 2014 — doesn’t mean leaders will disregard the recent drop in scores.

In fact, widening achievement gaps between the lowest and highest performing students could raise concerns at some schools that until now focused primarily on overall test scores.

“We’re now going to four measures (of student achievement) that are going to tell a deeper story about student performance at every building,” Neuenswander said.

A new state assessment system next spring will look at overall test scores along with year-over-year growth, closing the achievement gap and reducing the number of students below proficient.

“Schools and educators have never once said, ‘We don’t want to be held accountable,’ ” he said. “We’ll no longer have that one-size-fits-all measure, but we’ll have to look harder than ever at all these other ways to track achievement.”

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