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Kansas student achievement scores called deceptive

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.

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 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 earn a “meets standard” score and be labeled proficient by getting only half the answers right.

On the eighth-grade history/government exam, students need to answer only 42 percent correctly. In high school science, they have to get only 40 percent correct.

Cut scores vary depending on the subject and grade level. On the third-grade math assessment, for instance, a student has to get at least 70 percent correct.

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 losing his re-election bid, has pushed his colleagues to talk about cut scores but has been met with silence. Then late last week, Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker agreed to put the issue of cut scores on next month’s agenda, Chappell 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,” 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.’ ”

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 taken as part of a class.

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.”

The maximum possible score on the ACT college entrance exam is 36, but a score of 21 gains admission to most Kansas universities, he said.

“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.”

Chappell points to ACT scores — 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 math or science courses.