Kansas City’s most vulnerable students often fall behind when their families move often. And when the kids don’t meet the state’s expectations on standardized tests, their school district gets dinged. That makes it hard for districts with a lot of student turnover to improve their standing.
But with students who stay in the same school for a few years, the districts do a pretty good job. of educating students who stay in the same school for a few years – students like Alayna Lopez, a fourth-grader at James Elementary in northeast Kansas City.
A few days before state tests began this spring, Alayna was showing off her neon yellow T-shirt with a big letter ‘A’ on it.
“I got this shirt for having the best attendance, being a good student and having a good attitude,” she says.
Alayna has several of these shirts, one for each year she’s been at the school. James Elementary’s student population is relatively stable, and it shows. The school is outperforming the district as a whole: Its students have better attendance, fewer discipline issues and a higher percentage are rated proficient or advanced on state tests.
Alayna’s principal, Mary Bachkora, says her job is easier because the same kids return year after year.
“We never really have to start over,” Bachkora says. “We keep building on what they’ve already learned. And that helps them academically.”
Forty percent of Kansas City Public School’s students switch schools at least once per academic year, according to district statistics. Those are the students who enter KCPS already academically trailing their more stable peers, who leave before teachers can get them caught up and who are even further behind the next time they enroll in a KCPS school.
What it looks like in Kansas City, Missouri
In this era of accountability where everything is measured and tracked, piecing together an incoming student’s academic records isn’t easy — there are dozens of school districts plus public charter schools and a state line bisecting the metro.
Metro area school district boundaries
“A lot of times these students don't come with very tangible records, or if they have records at all,” KCPS chief research and accountability officer Mike Reynolds says.
His office spends a lot of time trying to track these records down, “so a lot of times we are completely blind as to what happened to these students previously, and ... just as important, what happens to these students next after they leave us.”
The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education doesn’t keep stats on how often students move. You won’t find it on a school’s report card, and it doesn’t factor into the state board’s decision to take over struggling districts.
But when it comes to academic achievement, how long a student stays in a school matters. That’s why KCPS tracks the achievement of students who move around a lot, even though the state doesn’t.
The differences in performance are stark. KCPS fifth-graders who’ve been in the district for three years score about 40 points higher on the Missouri Assessment Program (or MAP test). That’s half an achievement level higher than their peers with unstable enrollment.
And KCPS eleventh-graders who take the ACT college entrance exam score about two points higher if they’ve been in the same high school all three years.
“We’re not going so far as to say that this is the sole factor in these students’ achievement, but without a question, students who get evicted perform at a lower rate (and) have worse academic outcomes than students who don't,” Reynolds says.
Reynolds says KCPS teachers need two to three years to get kids who’ve fallen behind caught up. They rarely get that long. Remember, 40 percent of KCPS students switch schools at least once during the school year.
KCPS is one of a handful of districts in Jackson County sharing data with a new evictions task force that’s trying to figure out how many of these moves are involuntary.
It’s a start, but it doesn’t take into account moves across the state line into Kansas.
How Kansas City, Kansas, tackles the issue
Reynolds’ counterpart in Kansas City, Kansas, has a dry sense of humor.
“The teachers love us because we make them test,” says David Rand, who is the district’s director of evaluation research and assessment.
There is an upside to all that testing — Rand can say without hesitation that kids who attend Kansas City, Kansas, Public Schools for at least a few years are getting a good education.
“If you look at the numbers for the kids that stay in the same school for the entire time that they're there, those scores fit the national average,” he says. “They fit the normal curve. That's what you would expect to see from a large group of students.”
But because students enter and exit the district so often, it doesn’t show up on elementary exit exams. Half of the fifth graders who’ve been in the district since kindergarten meet grade-level expectations. Only a third of their peers who’ve transferred into Kansas City, Kansas, Public Schools in the last couple years do.
“The issue is that in the age of accountability, I think sometimes that pressure has maybe kept folks from really acknowledging the problem and looking at, you know, not just as an excuse, but what can we do about it?” Rand says.
And the reality is a constant influx of new students makes it hard to improve test scores, something educators in high-poverty districts wish more people realized.
Elle Moxley covers education for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.