- Associated Press - Saturday, February 8, 2014

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - Education policy experts differ over the causes of achievement gaps among Kansas public school students and whether the state is putting the right focus on how to boost scores.

The discussion occurred Thursday during a joint meeting of the House and Senate education committees to review state scores on a national reading assessment and state funding for schools.

State Education Commission Diane DeBacker and Dave Trabert, executive director of the Kansas Policy Institute, did agree that achievement gaps were widening between poor and wealthy students, the Topeka Capital-Journal reported (https://bit.ly/1aEfpi3 ). The two disagree on whether state funding earmarked for helping students at risk of failure was working or appropriate.

“Kansas has a two-tiered education system,” Trabert said. “About half of students are doing pretty well, but those considered economically disadvantaged are several years’ worth of learning behind.”

Legislators were reviewing scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress, which measures students in math and reading. DeBacker said the NAEP scores and separate state assessments show there were gaps among students on math and reading scores, a problem that has persisted despite efforts to target funding.

“We know we have a gap in terms of students living in poverty,” DeBacker said.

DeBacker said scores had declined since the 2008-09 school year, linking the drop to reductions in base state aid per pupil, which went from $4,400 per student to $3,838. She pointed to fourth- and eighth-grade math and reading scores as an example.

Kansas has fallen from ranking sixth in the nation in fourth-grade math in the 2008-09 school year to 11th in 2012-13 tests. Eighth-grade math had moved up from 12th to 11th. Reading scores at the fourth-grade level fell to 23rd in the country after being 17th, while eighth-grade reading fell from 20th in 2008-09 to 29th.

Trabert, who works for a conservative think tank, said comparing Kansas scores to other states was complicated by how rigorous the academic standards are in other states.

He said Kansas needed to take an analytical look at the additional funds that are spent each year to target programs aimed at helping low-achieving students. Trabert said there was no system to measure whether the money was hitting the mark.

“Is it actually being spent on at-risk? We don’t know,” Trabert said.

The Kansas school finance formula, which has been challenged in court, gives school districts additional funds for at-risk programs for each student that qualifies for free or reduced-priced lunches. The money can be used for additional tutoring or other student interventions, such as before and after-school instruction.

Legislators said the focus shouldn’t be on just the base state aid figure but all of the money put into education, including funding for teacher pensions and money from federal and local sources.

Sen. Jeff Melcher, a Leadwood Republican, also suggested that a way to improve student performance would be to develop a system for removing and replacing low-performing teachers.

Others, such as Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, said the danger in changing the funding formula was the potential for understating state cuts to education. Hensley said cuts at the state level increased the discrepancies between what poor and wealthy school districts can generate from local property taxes and the effect on the quality of education.

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