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Student needs must come first

Contrary to allegations made in a recent Hays Daily News editorial, Kansas Policy Institute did not encourage the House Education Committee to prevent the state from participating in Common Core standards. We can't speak for our friends at the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, whom the editorial also accused of opposing Common Core, but to our knowledge, they did not.

Kansas Policy Institute actually presented neutral testimony (available on our web site) on the Common Core bill. We certainly have deep concerns about outsiders developing standards and curriculum for Kansas kids but we also believe that Common Core might be the only chance Kansas kids have to get the higher performance standards they need.

One brave superintendent, Dr. Cynthia Lane of the Kansas City, Kan., school system, has publicly stated the Kansas assessments are not rigorous enough to prepare students for college and career. So, as much as we are concerned about outside intervention in the development of standards and curriculum, we told legislators that Kansas students may well benefit from the higher performance standards in Common Core.

The U.S. Dept. of Education says Kansas has some of the lowest performance standards in the nation. USDE says Kansas' minimum cut score for Proficient (Meets Standard) would be Below Basic (the lowest level) on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. To put that in perspective, the NAEP-equivalent minimum cut score for Meets Standard in 4th Grade Reading set by the Kansas Department of Education and the State Board of Education is about two years' worth of learning behind what USDE considers to be Basic for 4th Grade students.

KSDE reports that 89 percent of Kansas fourth-grade students Meet Standards in Reading, but they've set performance standards so low that nearly all students qualify as Proficient on state assessments, giving parents a false sense of high achievement. Many parents are shocked to learn that KSDE does not require students to have full comprehension of grade-appropriate material to Meet Standards. KSDE considers full comprehension to be Advanced and Exceeds Standard. So 89 percent of fourth-graders may meet the Kansas Reading standard, but only 62 percent have full comprehension.

The truth is that Kansas kids score a little above average on the NAEP and ACT. That's not intended as criticism -- it's just reality. Citizens have a right to know that many kids may do very well but clearly thousands of them are far behind. But that false sense of high achievement masks their performance and the fact that they need help.

By the way, Kansas didn't always have low performance standards. In fact, proficiency levels reported on state assessments and NAEP were quite similar until Kansas lowered the state standards beginning in 2002. They didn't do it maliciously of course, but to avoid losing federal money tied to No Child Left Behind. NCLB created the impossible goal of requiring every school to be at 100 percent proficiency by 2014 but they allowed states to set their own proficiency standard, so as U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan says, many states lowered the bar.

There is a common sense solution, though, that gets the higher standards kids need and avoids the outside intervention. States "volunteered" for Common Core because that was a condition of getting a waiver from NCLB, but the Supreme Court ruling on the Affordable Care Act now makes participation completely voluntary without threat of losing other federal money. Based on that precedent, Kansas could go back to the higher performance standards in place before NCLB and ensure local control over education issues.

Dave Trabert is president of Kansas Policy Institute.