Kansas education officials say more than four in five students meet or exceed the state’s standards in reading, math, science and history.
But one Kansas Board of Education member says that’s not true, and he’s calling for a public discussion about what he calls misleading claims of student achievement.
“We’ve got the bar so low that kids can step over it,” said Walt Chappell, a state board member from Wichita. “It’s embarrassing as heck, and it’s not right. We need to stop playing games.”
State officials say Chappell has misinterpreted how state assessments are designed and scored, and that achievement levels are rising.
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At issue are so-called cut scores — scores on state assessments and other tests that separate test-takers into categories such as “approaches standard,” “meets standard” and “exceeds standard,” or the score required to pass.
The cut score on the Kansas state driving exam, for example, is 80 percent: You must correctly answer 20 of 25 questions to pass the test and get your license.
Chappell said cut scores on Kansas assessment tests, which are used to evaluate schools and districts under the federal No Child Left Behind law, are well below what most people might guess — and lower than they should be.
For example, on the Kansas high school math assessment, students can get only half the questions correct to earn a score of “meets standard” and be labeled proficient in math.
On the eighth-grade history/government exam, students need to answer only 42 percent of questions correctly to meet the standard. In high school science, they have to get only 40 percent correct.
Cut scores vary depending on the subject and grade level, and whether a student takes an alternate test designed for those with special needs. On the third-grade math assessment, for instance, a student has to get at least 70 percent of answers correct to meet the standard.
In a recent comparison of state standards, the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Educational Statistics found that 40 states have higher fourth-grade reading standards than Kansas and 35 states have higher eighth-grade standards, based on definitions of proficiency.
Chappell, who will leave the state board in January after an unsuccessful re-election bid, has pushed his colleagues to talk about cut scores but so far has been met with silence. Earlier this month he proposed adding the topic to the agenda for the board’s December meeting, but his plan fizzled after it failed to get a second.
Chappell kept lobbying, and late last week Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker agreed to put the issue of cut scores on next month’s agenda, he said.
“We’ve been giving the impression to everyone in Kansas that we’ve got this great increase in learning, and it’s not true. We’re gaming the system,” Chappell said.
“I’d like to see us set a higher bar. We need to be much more realistic and honest with the people of Kansas and say, ‘Look, proficient doesn’t mean what you think it means.’ This illusion has to come to an end.”
Deputy Education Commissioner Brad Neuenswander said he understands why Chappell and others might question the cut scores. On the surface and by most standard measures, a score of 40 percent or 50 percent wouldn’t be considered passing.
The difference, he said, is that state tests are “large-scale assessments,” more comparable to a college entrance exam than a math or history test students might take after studying a particular unit in class.
“We fall back to our high school days, when you took a vocabulary test, and it was 10 questions, and if you got nine right, that was an A,” Neuenswander said. “That old 10-point scale that everyone knows.”
State assessments “aren’t designed to get a student to answer 100 percent of the questions correctly,” he said. “They are designed to determine a level of knowledge, and whether that particular student meets the level that we consider proficient.”
Confused? Think of baseball, Neuenswander said:
“In baseball, if you hit only 50 percent of the pitches and get on base, that could be considered failing,” he said. “But it also gets you into the Hall of Fame.”
Similarly, he said, the maximum possible score on the ACT college entrance exam is 36, but a score of 21 is enough for admission to most Kansas universities.
“If you look at just the numbers, it’s a failing score,” Neuenswander said. But “you can’t convert those to a (traditional) grading scale. That’s not what large-scale assessments are designed to measure.”
In Kansas, reading and math assessments are administered each year to students in third through eighth grades and once in high school.
Statewide last spring, the percentage of students performing in the top three levels on the reading assessment — meets standard, exceeds standard or exemplary — was 86.7 percent. In math, students in the top three levels totaled 84.4 percent.
In science and history, which are tested less frequently, about 80 percent of students scored in the top three levels.
Since its passage more than a decade ago, the No Child Left Behind law has required schools to meet higher and higher benchmarks for the percentage of students who score proficient or better. It also tied federal funding for high-poverty schools to student achievement on reading and math tests.
But the law lets states design their own exams and set their own cut scores. Some states, including Michigan and Illinois, have raised cut scores in recent years to reflect more rigorous standards.
Chappell said Kansas should either raise its cut score for all assessments to 70 percent or do away with the tests altogether.
“It’s not fair to our parents, our students or our legislators to be in mumbo-jumbo land, to use all these bureaucratic terms to explain why it is we call people proficient,” Chappell said.
“The fact is, they’re not (proficient). We’re giving students a false sense of accomplishment, and then they find out they’re not really prepared for college or a career.”
Chappell points to sobering scores on the ACT — relatively flat for a decade despite steady growth on state assessments — and research that shows nearly one-third of Kansas high school graduates need remedial classes before they can take college courses in math or science.
Neuenswander, the deputy commissioner, noted that about 60 percent of Kansas students score in the top two performance categories on state tests — exceeds standards or exemplary.
And “our kids do very well as compared to kids in other states,” he said. “Does that mean that 100 percent are successful on every test? No.”
Kansas schools no longer have to meet No Child Left Behind benchmarks because the state recently received a waiver from some requirements of the law. And it’s unclear whether or how tests next spring will reflect the state’s transition to Common Core Standards, an initiative designed to align states’ standards and measures of progress.
Regardless, Chappell said, there needs to be more scrutiny of the cut score numbers hidden within the test results.
“We keep hearing this achievement is real and measurable, but compared to what?” he said. “I’m not trying to badmouth anyone or say we’re doing terrible things. I’m just trying to make it realistic.”