Kansas students taking the ACT test in 2017 produced slightly lower scores than the previous year, and scores have remained relatively unchanged for many years. The average score for all students was 21.7 on a scale of zero to 36; that’s down from 21.9 last year and the same as in 2005. Average scores for the primary demographic breakouts are: White 22.6 (down from last year but higher than 22.1 in 2005), Hispanic 19.2 (same as last year and up from 19.1 in 2005) and African American 17.5 (down from 17.6 last year but up from 17.4 in 2005).
The education lobby attributes the 2017 score decline to a lack of funding, although historical data shows there is no correlation (let alone causation) between changes in spending and scores.
The widening achievement gap for minority students is especially apparent on ACT’s measurement of College Readiness in English, Reading, Math and Science. The percentage of White students considered college-ready in all four subjects went from 28 percent in 2005 to 35 percent this year; Hispanic students moved from 10 percent to 14 percent and African American students at still at 6 percent as they were in 2005.
ACT defines college-ready as having a 50 percent likelihood of getting a ‘B’ on an entry-level course or a 75 percent likelihood of getting a ‘C’.
There are some researchers who believe there is a correlation between spending more money and improving student outcomes, and there are many others who strongly disagree. But most of those who believe in correlation agree with their counterparts on two very important points:
- Just spending more money does not CAUSE outcomes to improve, and
- Spending money wisely makes the difference, not how much is spent.
This chart shows Kansas’ scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) have remained relatively unchanged since 1998 even though per-pupil spending has increased significantly and well beyond inflation.
Figure 2 below comes from a 50-state comparison of 2014 per-pupil current operating spending (most recent US Census data) adjusted for cost of living and the 2015 NAEP Index as calculated by Education Week; the red star represents Kansas. It’s obvious that the same or very similar results are achieved at significantly different spending levels and from a statistical standpoint, the R2 value of 0.04 means there is virtually no relationship between spending and outcomes.
Finally, the chart below from State Education Trends published by the Cato Institute shows that achievement for 17-year olds in the U.S. between 1970 and 2012 was essentially unchanged even though inflation-adjusted spending grew quite significantly.
You may have heard claims that Kansas has high national rankings on student achievement but unfortunately, that’s not true. Rankings on the National Assessment of Educational Progress and ACT both show Kansas is only about average overall, and that’s in a nation that doesn’t perform well in international competition.
The large achievement gaps between low income and the more affluent and between Whites and minorities exist in varying degrees across the nation; there are also significant differences in the demographic make-up of each state.
Accordingly, simple comparison of state overall average scores are not valid performance comparison. A state like Kansas with a predominantly White student population may have a higher average than a state where White students are the minority, even though such state may have better scores on most cohort-to-cohort comparisons. The adjacent table shows how this works; the overall state average is the sum of each cohort’s weighted average. For example, a score of 249 for a cohort that comprises 69 percent of the total yields a weighted average of 172 (249 x .69).
State #1 has a higher average score (242) even though the cohort scores for State #2 are all higher than State #1. The achievement gaps for both states are identical (20 points between White and Hispanic, 25 points between White and African American) but State #2 has a much lower proportional White enrollment.
Historic ACT scores are available here, and historic NAEP proficiency levels can be found here. By the way, a November 2011 press release from the Kansas Department of Education said measurement on NAEP since 2003 is valid and reliable.