Kansas school test scores, the subgroups

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To understand Kansas school test scores, look at subgroups.

Kansans are proud of their public schools. The public school education establishment refers with pride to top-ten rankings among the states on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), known as “The Nation’s Report Card.”

In his recent State of the State Address, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback made a similar claim, stating “According to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress, Kansas fourth graders are in one of the 10 best states for reading proficiency.”

If we’re going to rely on the NAEP test as evidence of the goodness of Kansas public schools, we should take a critical look at the scores. I’ve gathered NAEP test score data from the NAEP Data Explorer at the National Center for Education Statistics and made the data available in an interactive visualization.

This visualization uses “competition” ranking in the way it handles ties. In this example, the first three states have the same score, so they are all ranked “1.” The next state is ranked “4.”

This means that the rank values will always reach to 50, except for instances where there is missing or incomplete data. Actually, this data set extends to rank 52, as it contains the District of Columbia and the national average. I’ve also rounded the reported scores to integer values.

To look at the governor’s claim: For all students in 2013, Kansas ranked 9 in grade 4 math, and 7 in grade 8 math. In reading, Kansas ranked 22 for grade 4, and 26 for grade 8. In his speech, the governor claimed Kansas was top 10 in reading. But it’s in math that Kansas students did that well. Reading scores are more toward the middle of the states.

The importance of subgroups

If we really want to gain understanding of how Kansas compares to other states on the NAEP, we need to take a look at subgroups of students, particularly subgroups based on race/ethnicity. The visualization of NAEP scores lets us do that.

Start with math for grade 4. We see these rankings for the major subgroups:
All students, 9
Black, 8
Hispanic, 11
White, 17

For math, grade 8:
All students, 7
Black, 10
Hispanic, 13
White, 14

All students, 22
Black, 20
Hispanic, 26
White, 19

All students, 26
Black, 24
Hispanic, 37
White, 33

Kansans should not be proud of some of these results. For grade 8 reading, the scores for Hispanic and White students rank lower than the national average.

Another dimension for creating subgroups is based on poverty. NAEP uses eligibility for the national school lunch program as a proxy for poverty. If a student is eligible for the lunch program, the student is considered to be poor.

Starting again with math grade 4, here are the rankings among the states for Kansas:
All students, 9
Eligible, 4
Not eligible, 12

For math, grade 8:
All students, 7
Eligible, 8
Not eligible, 6

All students, 22
Eligible, 20
Not eligible, 13

All students, 26
Eligible, 28
Not eligible, 15

Some of the grade 8 reading rankings are lower than the national average.

As you can see, sometimes Kansas ranks very well among the states. In other instances, Kansas ranks much lower, even below the national average. It’s important for Kansans — be they citizens, schoolchildren, parents, education professionals, or (especially) politicians of any party — to understand these scores. If we don’t, we risk failing to recognize both the good things about Kansas schools and the areas that need improvement. Especially for the latter case, it’s Kansas schoolchildren who will suffer if we are not honest.

There are two visualizations that you may use. Click here to open the visualization for race/ethnicity in a new window. Click here to open the visualization for national lunch program eligibility in a new window.

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