Education in Missouri: More than half of our kids at below basic skill levels

How well do you think your high school prepared you for college? If you are from Missouri and you’re thinking to yourself “not very well,” you may not be alone. 

Every year the National Department of Education requires states to publish a report explaining how students are doing in key areas such as mathematics, english language skills and science beginning in third grade. 

For the second year in a row the report concludes that most children in Missouri are falling behind. 

The 2018 report of third graders shows that 51.4 percent are performing at or below basic levels in English, and 53.1 percent are at or below basic levels in math. While this disparity seems to lessen as children age, this is still a discouraging statistic. 

The numbers aren’t much different in Kansas. Their annual data shows 48 percent of third grade students performing at or below basic levels in math, and 60.5 percent are at or below basic levels in English.

When you look at these skills at a national level, it appears that Missouri and Kansas boast students performing slightly above national averages

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is a congressionally mandated project conducted by the Department of Education, and its goal is to accurately measure what students can and cannot do at the state level and compare them on a national level.  

The report calculates achievement levels of fourth, eighth and 12th graders from each state every other year and divides students into three groups: basic, proficient, and advanced. It then ranks them on a scale of 0-500, with 500 meaning that every student in the state is advanced. 

Nationally, students score an average of 239 in mathematics. Missouri scores 240 and Kansas scores 241, showing that there is no real statistical difference between the states and the rest of the country. In English, the national level of achievement is 221, and Missouri and Kansas both clock in at 223

Nearby states like Iowa, Arkansas and Oklahoma all score lower than Kansas, Missouri and the national averages in both math and reading. 

Overall, the percentage of students meeting at least basic levels of math has gone up 27 percent in fourth graders since 1998, and reading skills have increased 5 percent since 1994. This is a clear sign that at least some educational advancements have been made in the past 20 years. However, achievement levels are lower than they were between 2010-2012, so educational progress is not linear. 

It seems like the problem then, is not with Missouri or Kansas but with the national public schooling system as a whole. Why are so many states performing at such discouraging levels?

To better understand this question we can look to the consistent best state in the U.S., Massachusetts, and see what they are doing that others are not. 

According to the NAEP, Massachusetts continually scores the highest in elementary and secondary education assessments. That may be because of a statewide initiative to improve public schools that began in the 1990s and was dedicated to setting strict accountability systems, promoting charter schools and doubling the state budget for education. 

But Massachusetts is not without its flaws. In addition to earning the top spot in terms of educational achievement, Massachusetts also scores in the top 5 percent of states when it comes to achievement disparities. So it may not be that all students are doing better in Massachusetts than they would be in Kansas or Missouri. It may just be that Massachusetts has more academically advanced students that artificially bump up their averages. 

So what can Missouri and Kansas do better in the future? First, we need to recognize the things they are doing well. Both the Sunflower and Show-Me states can claim rates of attendance and graduation from high school in the  88th percentile and relatively low rates of dropouts – fewer than 2 percent of the total student population. 

We also need to look at what the states themselves can control. Funding in general is going up for public schools – up $6,619,000 from where it was in 2015 in Missouri. This is promising because more money should theoretically mean better pay for teachers and added benefits for students. 

Improving education also means reworking core curriculum, something the national government tried to implement that Missouri and Kansas have chosen to no longer follow since 2015. Missouri updated learning standards that would help unify state-wide education, but they were not implemented until the 2017-2018 school year, so it’s unlikely that we could already see progress stemming from these updates. 

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