A successful high school graduate has to be academically prepared to pursue his or her postsecondary plans – whether that is technical school, joining the military, attending a two- or four-year college or going straight into the workforce.
While academics are inarguably important, they alone won’t guarantee a student’s success after high school.
In working to ensure that students have complete skills to be successful in their adult life, the Kansas State Board of Education also recognizes the importance of cognitive preparation, technical skills, employability skills and civic engagement in its definition of a successful high school graduate.
“It’s about balance,” said Kansas Commissioner of Education Dr. Randy Watson. “We need to make sure we have a balance of rigorous skills. We often think of school as some quantifiable academic pursuit – ‘That I’m just supposed to study this course and get an A in it. If I do that, I will be successful.’ What we know is that’s not necessarily the case. It has to be more than academics. Academics are still a major part of what we need to do in schools. But it is not the only part.”
The Kansas State Department of Education through its Kansans Can Star Recognition Program is recognizing school districts that are doing an outstanding job of making sure students are academically prepared for life after high school. However, KSDE also recognizes those districts that are doing a good job ensuring students are civically engaged and socially-emotionally prepared.
“The school districts that do academics, social-emotional and civically engaged skills extremely well are the districts that are really helping students get ready for a successful life after high school,” Watson said.
Dr. Keith Mispagel is proud to serve as superintendent of a district that received silver in the academically prepared for postsecondary category of the Kansans Can Star Recognition Program.
In fact, he called the honor for Fort Leavenworth Unified School District 207 “phenomenal.” However, he also acknowledged there is always room for improvement.
“We know gold is there,” Mispagel said.
For Fort Leavenworth to achieve a silver star in the academically prepared for postsecondary area, the district had to have 60% to 74.9% of all students score at or above Levels 3 and 4 on state assessments.
For Kansas to achieve its vision for education in the area of academic preparation, 75% of all students need to score at or above Levels 3 and 4 on state assessments.
Level 3 shows an effective ability to understand and use the skills and knowledge needed for postsecondary academic readiness. Level 4 shows an excellent ability to understand and use the skills and knowledge needed for postsecondary academic readiness.
Districts are recognized for the percent of all students, across all grade levels, scoring at Levels 3 and 4 on Kansas state assessments in math, ELA and science. It is the combination of all grades in all three assessed subjects.
Fort Leavenworth was the only district in the state to receive a silver award. No district received a gold star, which is 75% of above.
“With our unique population at Fort Leavenworth School District, we face a challenge every year, as all districts do,” Mispagel said.
The district has a turnover rate of 50% in its student population every year because its student population is comprised of more than 90% dependents of active duty military soldiers. Every three years, that number jumps to 94%.
“For at least half of our population, we have 10 months to do the best we can to help them improve academically, socially-emotionally and really dive into the community,” Mispagel said. “Perfection is not mandatory. More importantly, we want to make sure every child makes progress. That student who scores a 1 – if that student gets to a 2, huge gains. If that student who is a 2 gets a high 2, huge gains for that child.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the district has maintained a “tenacious focus” on education and learning, the superintendent said. District administrators also are keenly aware of challenges facing families and staff members stemming from the pandemic, such as child care and employment uncertainty; loss of family, friends and loved ones; and the need to support mental health.
The district focuses on what they call the “four dots” – accreditation, English language arts, math and social-emotional learning.
“As an administrative team, as a district, if our initiatives, projects and goals didn’t fit into one of those four dots, we didn’t do it,” Mispagel said. “We focused strictly on where we were headed.”
The district increased the number of professional development hours for administrators, paraeducators, new certified staff members, returning certified staff members and instruction and building assistants.
District personnel also put additional focus on social-emotional learning and behaviors by adding in brain breaks to help keep students engaged. For example, before introducing a new concept, a teacher might lead students through a one- to three-minute physical activity.
“At the end of the day, we need to really understand that we have been dealing with a lot of personal and professional issues and more challenges than ever before,” Mispagel said.
Ensuring students are academically prepared doesn’t start in high school, Watson said. It starts at a much younger age – even as young as 3 and 4 - with imaginative play.
“In the earlier grades, we’re going a really great job of personalizing the experience for students, and we’re looking at data to see where the gaps are so we can remediate those early,” Watson said.
For example, all Kansas elementary schools are required to offer incoming kindergarten students the Ages & Stages Questionnaires®, Third Edition (ASQ-3) and Ages & Stages Questionnaires®: Social-Emotional, Second Edition (ASQ:SE-2), which help provide a snapshot of a child’s developmental milestones. Parents/caregivers are asked to complete both questionnaires since they know their children best.
KSDE and the State Board also in July 2021 announced $15 million in funding to address early literacy. The funds, set aside from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) III fund, will be spread out over a three-year period to train educators in the science of reading through Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS©) program.
Talking about a student’s passions and planning for the student to take coursework that aligns with that passion starts early, too, with an Individual Plan of Study (IPS). This can help a student determine what career field he or she is interested in. An IPS should be developed for every child beginning in middle school. In developing an IPS, parents and educators visit with the student to determine a path. As the student progresses throughout their school years, the IPS is revisited annually and updated.
“It is important to know that (assessments and testing) are a measure,” Watson said. “When we give a state assessment or an ACT, it tells us something important. But we also have some students who just don’t test well. So how well they do in a course, their GPA (grade point average) – those are also great indicators.”
The Kansas Assessment Program (KAP) includes a variety of tests and other tools aligned to Kansas curriculum standards, according to ksassessments.org. These tests and tools are designed to help evaluate student learning, as well as to meet the requirements for federal and state accountability. The tests are developed by The University of Kansas’ Achievement and Assessment Institute (AAI).
Each year, students in grades third through eighth and 10th are assessed in ELA and math. A science assessment is provided in grades 5, 8 and 11. KAP score reports relay information about student performance in terms of scale scores, which is a mathematical conversion of the total number of points a student earns on an assessment into a score along a predefined scale. Scale scores on all KAP assessment range from 220 to 380. Performance level descriptors are the levels discussed earlier – Levels 1, 2, 3 and 4. Scale scores dividing the performance levels are called cut scores.
“We set the highest standards in academics in the country in language arts and mathematics,” Watson said. “We also set the highest cut scores.”
The ACT and WorkKeys assessments also can be good measures of academic preparedness. In fact, the Kansas Legislature appropriated funds for a statewide contract to provide one free ACT assessment and one free WorkKeys suite of assessments to all high school juniors (those who attend a public high school or an accredited private school.
“At one time, postsecondary required college admissions exams, but there is a trend away from that now,” said Kent Reed, an education program consultant for counseling at KSDE. “However, they can still provide a snapshot of academic and cognitive strengths and needs. They also include strength finders and career interest inventories. Most postsecondary schools also use them as a measure for academic scholarships.”
While all good measurements of where a student is at, there are other indicators, too, Watson said.
“I’ve known students who are 4.0 students and their ACT scores are 18, 19, 20, and they are very discouraged by that. But they do fine postsecondary,” he said. “I’ve also known students who were 3.1, 3.2 (GPA) and have 32 ACT scores. They tend to do fine. When you get the extremes – a student who has a 2.1 GPA and a very high ACT score, the ACT score isn’t going to tell you any more than the GPA. You look at that student and go, ‘We have some gaps here. This student is going to struggle.’ In fact, the GPA can be a stronger predictor of how they actually did in a course than even a standardized test.”
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