Kansas school officials’ accreditation testimony exposes assault on academic achievement

(The Sentinel) – You might think that mandating loss of accreditation for requiring school districts that don’t comply with state law would not be controversial, but that proposal in House Bill…

(The Sentinel) – You might think that mandating loss of accreditation for requiring school districts that don’t comply with state law would not be controversial, but that proposal in House Bill 2612 was met with vehement opposition this week by state and local school officials.

The left-leaning Kansas Reflector predictably calls HB 2612 an “assault on public education,” but the Reflector’s opinion and education officials’ reaction really amounts to an assault on students.  Kansas Policy Institute, which owns the Sentinel, encouraged the legislation after years of watching the Kansas Board of Education (KSBOE) allow districts to violate at least two laws with impunity.

A 2019 Kansas Legislative Post Audit audit found school districts were not spending at-risk funding to provide services for academically at-risk students that are “above and beyond” what is provided in the classroom.  Another audit in 2023 found districts are still not spending hundreds of millions as the law stipulates.

The building needs assessment law says school board members “shall conduct” annual meetings to identify barriers preventing students from being proficient in reading and math and then craft budget solutions to overcome the barriers.

It has been three years since Kansas Policy Institute first exposed that school districts do not allow board members to participate in the meetings they are supposed to conduct.  House and Senate Education Committees have repeatedly called on school districts, the Department of Education, and the State Board of Education to comply with the building needs assessments to no avail.

Still, no district has been denied accreditation, even though districts must comply with state laws to be accredited.  KSDE won’t enforce its accreditation standards, so now the Legislature must step in.

School districts consciously ignore state laws

Superintendents and a board member representing 16 districts testified against HB 2612, at least implying that they follow the law.  We wrote to each district, asking the superintendent to answer two questions:

  1. Do school board members in your district participate in meetings with teachers to “conduct” needs assessments in each school?
  2. Does your district spend all of its At-Risk money on services that are “above and beyond” those available to all students?

Only three superintendents responded.  Amy Ricks, superintendent of USD 459 Bucklin, answered ‘no’ to both questions.  USD 409 Atchison superintendent Dr. Renee Nugent didn’t answer the questions directly, but her responses indicated the district does not follow either law.  I wrote back explaining why her answers could arguably be legal violations, to which she merely replied, “Thanks.”

Emporia Superintendent Dr. Allison Anderson-Harder also did not directly answer the questions, saying only that the district follows KSDE guidelines.  Knowing that KSDE does not compel districts to follow either law, we told Dr Anderson-Harder that we would report that her response indicates the answers to both questions are ‘no’ unless she provides contradictory documentation.  She did not respond.

Nugent doesn’t deny being out of compliance with both laws, and the lack of response from the other 13 districts indicates that – if we are being generous –  they don’t want their districts’ actions to be on the record.

It’s unknown, however, how many superintendents and school boards violate these laws rather than risk upsetting the education establishment.  The taxpayer-funded Kansas Association of School Boards has a great deal of influence on the hiring process for superintendents, and there could be concern that breaking ranks with the system would prevent them from being hired anywhere else in Kansas.

The Kansas Department of Education’s written guidance on the building needs assessment process only advises board members to review information; it carefully avoids disclosing that the law says school board members “shall conduct” the meetings.

These are willful efforts to circumvent laws designed to improve student outcomes.  State officials say they want better proficiency levels, but they are unwilling to change adult behaviors to make that happen.

State school board: if you’re breathing, you’re on track for college and career

KSDE has a stated goal of having 75% of students being proficient in reading and math, as determined by students scoring in Levels 3 or 4 on the state assessment.

“The Kansas State Board of Education defines a successful high school graduate as having the academic preparation, cognitive preparation, technical skills, employability skills and civic engagement to be successful in postsecondary education, in the attainment of an industry recognized certification or in the workforce, without the need for remediation.

 “For Kansas to achieve its vision for education in the area of academic preparation, 75% of all students need to score at or above Levels 3 and 4 on state assessments.” 

However, State School Board member Ann Mah testified at the HB 2612 hearing that students scoring in Level 2 are on track for college and career.  Only Levels 3 and 4 were described that way when KSDE introduced the new standards in 2015, but the definitions were later revised to give a false impression of higher achievement.

Now, KSDE says a student scoring in Level 2 “shows a basic ability to understand and use the skills and knowledge needed for college and career readiness.”

Mah’s logic is that students must be on track for college and career if those words appear in the description of any performance level on the state assessment.

Students scoring in Level 1 show “a limited ability to understand and use the skills and knowledge needed for college and career readiness.”  Level 1 scores are the lowest on the state assessment, so KSDE and Ann Mah want people to believe that every student in Kansas is on track for college and career.

They know that is not true, but that is the extent to which they will go to protect their system and resist change for students’ benefit.

Measuring growth for accreditation is another falsehood

Several superintendents who testified against the loss of accreditation for not following state laws said the accreditation process requires schools to “show growth” and at least implied that student achievement is improving.  School districts should have to show growth to be accredited, but KSDE and the State Board of Education obviously don’t enforce that requirement, either.

We compared state assessment scores from 2015 and 2023 for the 16 superintendents and board members who testified against HB 2612 by calculating a composite score for each district; we assigned zero points for students in Level 1, two points for students in Level 2, and four points for scores in Levels 3 and 4.

Most districts show achievement declines, but none have lost accreditation

Ten of the 16 districts have lower outcomes in Math than they did in 2015, and 15 of them have lower scores in English Language Arts.

KSDE and the majority in control at the State Board of Education don’t require districts to show regular improvement in student outcomes; they measure process.

Accreditation only requires districts to demonstrate having a process in place.  Whether that process is effective or in compliance with state law is of no concern to state officials.

Amend the Constitution to put students first

HB 2612 is an important step, but the Legislature must ultimately amend the state constitution to get students the education they deserve.

According to the Education Commission of the States, Kansas is one of only seven states with an education governance system where a majority or all of the state board of education members are elected, and the board appoints the chief state school officer.  The Constitution needs to be changed so that one person – either a Governor or an elected education commissioner – can be held directly responsible for student achievement, and giving the Legislature direct oversight of the Department of Education, just as it does with every other state agency.

For decades, the majority of State School Board members and KSDE officials have shown that their allegiance lies with the system, not students.  Students and parents need a system that allows voters, the Governor, or the Legislature to remove an Education Commissioner if satisfactory student achievement gains are not produced.