What You Probably Didn't Know About Academic Standards In Kansas And Missouri

Nov 26, 2014

When test scores for students in Missouri and Kansas are compared using international benchmarking, Missouri students perform better.
Credit gvarc.org / Creative Commons

It’s not really fair, but when many people around here think of quality schools, they think of Kansas.

Indeed, going back decades lots of real estate agents have guided new residents to the Kansas side of the line.

But there’s a significant difference between how Missouri schools and Kansas schools are judged.

"Our Missouri standards tend to rank at the more rigorous levels than do our standards assessments in Kansas," says Dr. Leigh Anne Taylor Knight of the Kansas City Area Education Research Consortium.

Twenty-five years ago, when Kathryn Sindt and her family moved here from Utah, they could have settled anywhere.

"We read up on the districts that were available to us. And we looked (at) houses in Missouri and we looked at houses in Olathe, we looked at houses in Overland Park and Shawnee and really focused in on Shawnee Mission West," she says.

The Sindts bought a house in Overland Park and put their three boys through the Shawnee Mission District.

"It was one of the top 10 school districts in the entire nation and so that’s why we decided where we wanted to be," she says.

The Sindts liked the district so much that Kathryn’s three boys are now raising their kids in Shawnee Mission.

"I enjoy the fact that my children are getting the same opportunities that I did with the teachers and the strong school district that we have here," says Peter Sindt, who has eight children in Shawnee Mission schools. 

KCUR's Beyond Our Borders project will examine the Missouri-Kansas state line in the Kansas City metropolitan area through early 2015.
Credit Courtesy photo / KCUR

There’s no doubt Shawnee Mission, Olathe and Blue Valley schools are excellent.

But when you see those reports on how many students are proficient in math or English, you can’t compare them across state lines.

According to most national studies, the standards in Missouri are tougher than the ones in Kansas.

Why? Because states get to create their own proficiency standards.

RELATED: What Happens When Kansas, Missouri Test Scores Are On A Level Playing Field

"Those states have independently determined what are the standards or the core competencies that they want students to gain by grade level throughout their schools in their state," says Taylor Knight.

The American Institute for Research, which studies these issues, calls this “policy jabberwocky”, proficiency means whatever a state wants it to mean.

Here’s an example.

Kansas reports that in 2011, 90 percent of fourth graders were proficient in reading.

Missouri reported only 53 percent proficiency.

You may be asking, just how much better are those Kansas schools?

But when the AIR study normalized the numbers using international standards, fourth grade readers in Missouri got a “B” while fourth grade readers in Kansas got a “C-".

This graph shows where Missouri and Kansas scores fall in rank when using their individual state scoring systems, and where they fall using the international benchmark.
Credit American Institutes for Research

The reputation of out-of-state schools doesn't always sit well with Missouri educators. 

"When I came to the state I found that teachers were saying to me a lot, why is it that 42 percent of my students are proficient in English language arts and across the line in Tennessee 80 percent of theirs are proficient, you know, and I know our students perform as well as theirs do," says Sharon Helwig, assistant commissioner at the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The AIR study also showed that states with high proficiency have lower standards.

"I would disagree with that. I think our standards are just as rigorous as they are in many states and sometimes even more rigorous," says Jeannette Nobo who is Assistant Director for Career Standards and Assessment Services for the Kansas Department of Education.

She says state proficiency standards are just guidelines and Kansas districts can set their own curriculum.

"Our teachers really do know what our standards are about and how to teach those students in order to make sure that they achieve that they’re successful on those assessments," Nobo says.

So now we know that those proficiency standards may not be the best way to judge whether to send your children to school in Missouri or Kansas.

Common Core, whatever you think of the politics, is supposed to smooth those differences out so reading proficiency in one state is like the one next door.

But Leigh Anne Taylor Knight from the KC Area Education Research Consortium wants you to think about something else.

"How is the school doing when it comes to being innovative, when it comes to helping students develop skill sets and processes that are beyond maybe what are measured on those standardized assessments," she says.

No matter what state you live in picking a school, Taylor Knight says, is less about published statistics and more about how it feels when you walk in the door.

This look at the Missouri-Kansas state line is part of KCUR's months-long examination of how geographic borders affect our daily lives in Kansas City. KCUR will go Beyond Our Borders  and spark a community conversation through social outreach and innovative journalism.

We will share the history of these lines, how the borders affect the current Kansas City experience and what’s being done to bridge or dissolve them. Be a source for Beyond Our Borders: Share your perspective and experiences on the state line with KCUR.