Wyoming Liberty Group
Wyoming K-12: We Must Get Our Heads Out of the Sand
Certain Wyoming legislators want our schools to compare favorably with the best schools in the country. Before we compare ourselves to the Joneses, though, we need to get our heads out of the sand and look honestly at how poorly we performed against our own state benchmark as measured by the testing system Wyoming’s experts chose, “PAWS”.
We note that Wyoming statute 21‑2‑204(b)(iv) “Wyoming Accountability in Education Act” (WAEA) states that one of its goals is “Ensure all students leave Wyoming schools career or college ready.”
We also see where the Wyoming Department of Education “Technical Report Proficiency Assessments for Wyoming Students (PAWS)” manual states on page 82, “For each PAWS test, “below basic” and “basic” performance levels result in a “does not meet standard” classification...” and in its glossary: “Performance Level Descriptors - These statements describe how well students must perform the benchmark standards in order to meet each performance level. The proficient level is required to meet the standards. These descriptors help teachers judge how students are performing in relation to meeting the standards.” (Emphasis ours).
So, the Wyoming standard is for all students (and by extension each school and our whole system) to test at or above the proficient level as measured by PAWS. Do all Wyoming students appear to be progressing satisfactorily toward that standard or being career or college ready? Nope, not even close. PAWS shows overall in 2016-17 between 40 and 50 percent of our kids failed to reach proficiency.
The PAWS Interpretation Guide for Teachers (no longer available on the Wyoming Department of Education website) tells us the two categories below proficient. “Basic” means students have partial understanding of main ideas or whole numbers and measurements. “Below basic” means students require extensive support or display little or no evidence in meeting the standard.
Worse is the state’s three-year track record because, overall, we’ve barely made a dent in our PAWS failure rates, as seen in this chart.
We must ask, where is the “accountability” in the WAEA? Has anyone heard of a school superintendent or assistant superintendent for instruction getting fired or seriously disciplined as a result of poor scores? Has any district had their funding cut as a result of poor scores? Of course not. In fact, test scores are now specifically not allowed as performance metrics for teachers and administrators in their performance reviews. And it is very unwise politically to cut someone’s funding. As a result, everyone sails merrily on with essentially no risk to his/her very, very substantial compensation or career, while the cost of our K-12 system keeps rising and our kids are left unready.
By contrast, the graph below shows the comparable proficiency failure rates for Wyoming charter schools as an easily identifiable subgroup of public schools.
These results show real potential. We think a big part of the reason is charter schools live in a very different world of accountability. If they don’t perform, they’re at risk of several consequences: having parents take their kids back to traditional schools, facing angry boards of directors, having local media swat them with ugly publicity, and literally getting shut down.
Although we don’t have many charter schools to draw conclusions from, charters certainly seem to merit public trust. People looking for solutions will benefit from studying them because at least five of the top ten high schools in the U.S. are charter schools, according to U.S. News and World Report. The point is our K-12 system overall is failing our neediest kids.
Again, instead of comparing ourselves to the Joneses (other states, none of whom actually perform all that well), let’s take our heads out of the sand and look honestly at our existing high standard, recognize we’re not living up to it and make serious changes. School boards must insist school administrators get results with our students or face consequences. Parents and teachers need to pitch in, too. We are not doing these non-proficient kids (or ourselves) any favors by sending them into the world unable to cope.