A Critique of Progress in the Kansas City Public Schools
Results of the Kansas City Public School District’s performance on state tests and other measures of school effectiveness are in. There are some small gains and a substantial number of areas in which performance is stagnant. District personnel and supporters are focusing on the small gains and hope to justify being elevated to “provisional accreditation” status, which lessens the risk of state take-over and migration of students to surrounding districts.
Do the facts support the District’s claims that it has made impressive gains? Here are some observations about the results of the MSIP 5 (Missouri State Improvement Program) process and our concerns about results in the classrooms.
As Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro has pointed out, 70 percent of the students in the District remain below the “proficient” level across all subject areas. The lowest percentages are in academic achievement (43%) and subgroup achievement (46%).
There was no growth in literacy/language arts (reading and writing). Gains that brought the percentages up were in non-academic area: college and career readiness, attendance, and graduation rate.
In Algebra I, a prerequisite for advanced high school math courses, only 20 percent of the students were proficient or above in end of course exams (excluding Lincoln College Preparatory Academy).
ACT scores, which measure students’ preparation for college, are the lowest in the area and among the lowest in the state. As reported by The Kansas City Star, the range (except for Lincoln Prep at 22.4) is 14.2 to 16.5—not enough to gain admission to most state universities. This is in contrast to the “college and career readiness” points earned on the state assessment.
The accreditation process awards points for “improvement.” The District identified students who appeared to be on the “threshold” of rising from the “below basic” to “basic” level of performance on the MAP test. These threshold students were given special tutoring utilizing purchased tests that mirror the MAP, i.e. teaching to the test. We would like to know how many of the gains, small as they are, come from these specially tutored students vs. how much from the other students. If a majority of the gains come from the threshold students, as seems likely, this suggests that the other students did not gain much, if any. The District says it cannot provide us with the data about threshold students vs. other student achievement.
Data presented at a recent school board meeting showed movement of a number of students from below basic to basic level. These are likely the specially tutored threshold students. Experienced teachers with whom we have talked indicate that movement upward another level to “proficient” will be much more difficult.
Finally, observation of board meetings and other District meetings has convinced us that the operative goal is the gaining of accreditation rather than substantial improvement in the quality of classroom instruction. We see no evidence of a pervasive turnaround in spite of the rhetoric. Real turnaround is often painful and upsets the status quo and vested interests. It requires a willingness to change whatever is necessary to align activities with the agreed-upon goal, and reallocation of resources to drive toward that goal. That goal, for us, is preparing every student to graduate ready for college or another learning organization leading to a meaningful career. It should not be accreditation.
We applaud the commitment of the District’s leadership to improvement and its recognition that there is much more work to be done. In that spirit we support Commissioner Nicastro’s plan to utilize outside expertise to help implement a pervasive and meaningful turnaround. Kansas City’s children deserve no less.