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Students slip on standardized tests

9/19/2012

By JOHN HANNA

Associated Press

TOPEKA -- Kansas public school students slipped in their overall performance on standardized tests during the past school year, a new report card said Tuesday, generating concerns past state budget cuts are hindering how well children do.

State education officials said the slight decreases in the percentage of all students who met or exceeded standards on reading and math tests represented the first time the state's overall scores have dropped since the federal No Child Left Behind law took effect in 2001. The percentage of students who met or exceeded standards in science and history and government tests also were lower.

Deputy Education Commissioner Brad Neuenswander said the declines were "persistent in all areas."

The federal law requires all students to be proficient in reading and math by 2014, pushing states to measure whether schools are making adequate yearly progress. However, federal officials have granted waivers to more than 30 states, including Kansas, granting them more flexibility.

When Neuenswander presented the latest report card to the State Board of Education, he said the education department still is trying to pinpoint the source of the declines. But some educators immediately saw a link to reductions in the state's base aid for school districts.

"It's really pretty straightforward. Districts used the increased funding for specific things. They hired more people. They added more programs," said Mark Tallman, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards. "When you have to add to your general fund budget, those are exactly where you have to take the dollars away from."

On reading tests, 85.7 percent of the state's students met or exceeded standards, the same level as for the 2008-09 school year. The figure was 87.6 percent for the 2010-11 school year. The report card showed 83.7 percent of students met or exceeded standards on math tests, compared to 84.7 percent for the 2010-11 school year.

In the past, educators were quick to credit large increases in state aid for public schools for continued improvements. Base state aid peaked at $4,400 per student for 2008-09, slid to $3,780 per student for 2011-12, and then rose to $3,838 for the current school year.

More than 30 students and their parents, along with four school districts, are suing the state over education funding.

Some board members questioned whether funding is behind the declines.

Ken Willard, a Hutchinson Republican, said Kansas officials knew, eventually, the annual percentages of students meeting or exceeding standards would level out as 2014 approached.

Board member Walt Chappell, a Wichita Republican, blamed the federal law, saying it has imposed a "one size fits all" approach that's led schools to teach to the tests rather than serve students.

Another board member noted Neuenswander avoided saying whether he and other department officials saw the declines as statistically significant.

"I would just like to know that, to know whether I need to panic or not," said Sue Storm, an Overland Park Democrat.