In Kansas school board races, test scores are a hot topic. What do they even tell us?
A first-grader at Broken Arrow Elementary in Shawnee Mission works at his desk. Standardized test scores and have become a point of contention in this year's Kansas school board races. (Celia Llopis-Jepsen/Kansas News Service)
Ahead of the Nov. 7 election, conservative candidates for school board seats across Kansas have repeatedly asserted that scores on the state standardized test show schools are failing. But experts say that's not necessarily true — and scores are just one part of the picture.
Heated conversations about diversity initiatives, book bans and how to teach about race have been regular fixtures on school boards and in state legislatures in recent years.
But as the Nov. 7 school board races approach, a new talking point divides candidates — whether students are performing well enough on state assessments.
Candidates for the Blue Valley and Shawnee Mission school boards argued their districts are losing academic rigor, despite being some of the highest performing in the state.
In Wichita, some candidates have centered their campaigns on the Kansas Department of Education’s annual report card, saying students aren’t mastering the basics.
Conservatives argue that an increased focus on diversity and inclusion is to blame for declines in student achievement.
The latest data from the Kansas Department of Education showed that student test scores have started to rebound after dropping during the COVID-19 pandemic. But lawmakers, concerned that many students continue to underperform, clashed with educators over how state assessments should be used.
David Smith, spokesman for the Shawnee Mission school district, said the annual tests aren’t the best predictor of student achievement.
“I’ve never had, in my experience, anybody come to me and say, ‘Well, I was applying for a job and they asked me what my scores were on the Kansas assessment,’” Smith said. “Our kids focus on the things that are meaningful for them.”
Here’s a look at the state assessment and what it can — and can’t — tell us about student learning. What is the state assessment? Kansas assessments are a set of computerized tests designed to measure students’ understanding of hundreds of academic standards in language arts, math and science. The tests meet federal accountability requirements under the Every Student Succeeds Act.
This past spring, students in third through eighth grades and high school sophomores took assessments in English language arts and math. Students in grades five, eight and 11 took the science test.
The tests are developed and delivered by the Achievement & Assessment Institute at the University of Kansas, in partnership with the state Department of Education. Groups of teachers design the questions and set the cut scores that determine four performance levels.
Level 1 means a student demonstrates “limited” ability and is not on track for college or the workforce. Level 2 means a student has a “basic” ability, 3 is “effective,” and 4 is “excellent.”
Neal Kingston, director of the Achievement & Assessment Institute, cautions families and lawmakers from comparing the levels to traditional grades, such as A, B, C and F, because the tests are designed to be rigorous and to leave room for growth.
He also questioned a common belief that a Level 2 score is substandard.
“It becomes a very political issue, because Level 2 is considered by some people — often by policy-makers that are not heavily involved in education all the time — (as) ‘That’s not good enough,’” he said. “We’re saying, ‘You have the basics already. You’re on track for college and career readiness.’ But it’s not always interpreted that way.”
Kingston said standardized tests have long been controversial, and the Kansas assessment is no different.
“There are people who swear by it and people who swear at it. And they're both right, I would say, because a lot depends on both the context and uses,” he said. How well are Kansas students doing on state testing? Average scores on state tests started to slide prior to the COVID-19 pandemic but declined sharply after in-person school shut down in 2020.
White students and students in more affluent school districts outscore students of color and students in high-poverty schools across grade levels.
But a report earlier this month from the Kansas Department of Education showed that student test scores have started to rebound. Every grade level improved on the math assessment, and six of seven scored higher overall in English language arts.
State education leaders say schools’ primary goal moving forward should be to reduce the percentage of students who score in the lowest level on the tests, because that reduces their chances of graduating high school.
Last spring, about a third of Kansas fifth graders scored in the lowest category in math and English language arts. Among high school students, 45% scored below grade level in math, and 35% in English language arts. What do state test scores tell us? Uniform state assessments make it easier to compare districts’ progress on reading and math to one another and to previous years.
Scott Rothschild, a spokesman for the Kansas Association of School Boards, said that’s one reason politicians emphasize test scores.
“It's a standardized score, and you can compare it from school to school,” Rothschild said. “But if you really want to know where a student is, I think most teachers will tell you that it's a very complicated process.”
Rothschild said most teachers view state tests as just one tool.
Cal Siebenmark, a fourth grade teacher at Stanley Elementary School in Wichita, said politicians place pressure on teachers by pushing for a one-size-fits-all approach.
“If our children are not standardized, is taking a high-stakes standardized test the most equitable solution here?” Siebenmark said. “These kids face a lot of challenges each day, and our job as teachers is to focus on their growth.”
State Rep. Kristey Williams, a Republican from Augusta, said the test was created by teachers — not the legislature — to measure learning standards.
“It’s not a terrible villain. It’s not there to do anything more than try to objectively look at what our students do know, or what they’re able to produce on a given day, just like an ACT or SAT or an AP course test might ask,” Williams said. “It isn't the end-all be-all, but it is important for us to understand.”
An analysis of state data from the Kansas Association of School Boards found that with each level of the state assessment, students were on average more likely to graduate on time, score higher on the ACT and earn or be on track for a post-secondary credential. What do state tests not capture about student learning? Understanding the state assessments can also be a challenging process, Rothschild said. He said many people make the mistake of directly comparing different levels of assessments to grade levels.
“A student who scores a level one on their eighth grade math assessment is not a failing student,” he said. “They are a student that just needs help in math. That's all.” Some of the things schools emphasize aren’t measured by standardized tests.
“The ability to rebound, the ability to recover, the ability to work well with others, cooperation skills, the so-called soft skills or the skills that employers really look for,” Rothschild said, “These tests don't test that.”
Rothschild said parents can use measurements like graduation rates, postsecondary success and credentials and college credit earned while still in high school to tell how well their student is doing.
Kansas students graduated from high school at a rate of 89.3% in 2022, a 3.7% increase from 2016.
“The point of school is to get kids that diploma at the end of 12 or 13 years — the high school graduation rate is critical," Rothschild said. “And on this, Kansas is really doing a good job.”
The Kansas State Department of Education reported the rate of students completing or remaining enrolled in postsecondary education two years after high school also increased. The number of students earning college credits while in high school also increased by 14.5% over the past six years. What is testing like for students and teachers? Teachers and students feel pressured by the emphasis on test scores, too. Siebenmark said between preparing and administering all the different subjects, testing can take days of classroom time.
He also works on testing strategies with students and explains to them that they won’t know everything that’s on the assessment.
“The preparation and their ability sometimes can really feed into that pressure. The idea behind state assessments are a little complex for an 8- or 9-year-old to understand,” Siebenmark said. “It can lead to frustration, and it can also affect their performance on the test.”
Siebenmark wants more emphasis on project-based learning because he said it's a better gauge of what students are learning and what they can do.