The Kansas Department of Education conducted a fifty-city “Kansans Can Success Tour” in 2021 that felt like high school pep rallies, with the announcement of record-setting high school graduation rates ushered in with great fanfare. But it was really about grade inflation.
KSDE gave out sixty-five Gold Awards and twenty-six Silver Awards to districts with high school graduation rates at or above 93%. But how many school districts do you think received Gold or Silver Awards for Academic Preparedness? Just one—Unified School District (USD) 207 on the military base at Fort Leavenworth.
Now KSDE is taking another lap on the grade inflation tour.
Commissioner Randy Watson last week told the State Board of Education that the Kansas high school class of 2022 graduated at a rate of 89.3%, more than a percentage point higher than in 2021 and three percentage points higher than in 2015.
Achievement hasn’t improved since 2015. On the contrary, it is considerably lower.
In math, the proficiency rate for high school students dropped from 24% in 2015 to 20% now. English language arts proficiency dropped from 30% to 25%. There have been more high school students below grade level in both subjects than are proficient since 2017, and those gaps are getting worse.
This is not by accident, and it cannot be blamed on COVID. In 2016, Watson convinced the State Board of Education to de-emphasize academic preparation and instead measure success by graduation rates, implementation of social-emotional learning, and other factors that do not measure academic preparedness.
That makes graduation rates more akin to grade inflation than academic preparation.
As the late great Walter Williams said, “It’s grossly dishonest for the education establishment and politicians to boast about unprecedented graduation rates when the high school diplomas, for the most part, do not represent academic achievement. At best, they certify attendance.”
Schools give diplomas to students who can’t read or do math at grade level
Students are last tested on the state assessment when they are in the 10th Grade, but there is no reason to believe that proficiency improved over their last two years in high school.
In 2022, 20% of them were proficient in math, and 25% were proficient in ELA. When they were in the third grade in 2015, proficiency was 51% and 47%, respectively, and there has been a steady decline since.
Superintendents and school board members sit by silently as diplomas are awarded to students who are below grade level.
This harsh reality was voiced at a meeting of the Public Policy & Advocacy Committee of the Overland Park Chamber of Commerce in 2019. Several committee members expressed strong disagreement about students getting a diploma even though they are below grade level. One member questioned the speaker’s motives and stormed out of the room. But the two school superintendents in attendance said nothing. Olathe Superintendent John Allison and Shawnee Mission Superintendent Michael Fulton offered no rebuttal, as they couldn’t dispute the state assessment results.
Celebrating grade inflation is shameful. This isn’t a teacher problem; it’s a management problem, and management repeatedly demonstrates its disregard for academic preparation. That’s why the Legislature must pass money-follow-the-child legislation that allows every student to take their state funding to a school of their choice.
Governor Kelly, Democrats, and the Republicans who oppose school choice should answer one simple question – how many years…or decades…will it take education officials to get students to acceptable levels of proficiency under the status quo?