Kansas education officials celebrate graduation rates but say work is far from over

By: - September 4, 2021 9:00 am

Kansas graduation rates among all students and target groups, such as students living in poverty, English language learners and students with disabilities, reached all-time highs in 2020, says education commissioner Randy Watson. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Kansas education commissioner Randy Watson says graduation rates are at an all time high, including gains in every category of at-risk students, but there is still room for improvement.

In the past six years, the state high school graduation rate has risen to 88.3% in 2020, the highest percentage in state history, Watson said. Rates among students in poverty increased by 3.7%, students with disabilities by 3.1% and English learners by 3.1% since 2015.

Watson said the improved rates are a reason to celebrate but the eventual goal of 95% for all — which no state has been able to achieve — remains a priority. The U.S. average is 88% with Iowa and Kentucky leading the way in 2020 at 94%. 

Attendees of the tour stop Friday in the Auburn-Washburn school district provide feedback on where they would like to see Kansas education officials set their sights over the coming years. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

“Twelve percent of the kids in Kansas did not graduate in 2020. That’s 4,000-5,000 kids who did not walk across the stage,” Watson said. “If that’s your kid or your grandkid, or your niece or nephew, or the kid that sits in the pew at church, down the neighborhood, it doesn’t matter what the stats are, right?”

Watson was joined Friday by close to 100 educators, community members, students and lawmakers at Washburn Rural Middle School in a forum to encourage feedback on what further changes need to be made in the approach to education. This was the 42nd stop of 50 for Kansas State Department of Education officials in a cross-Kansas tour to assess needs in every corner of the state and report on progress.

Deputy education commissioner Brad Neuenswander discussed survey results from a similar tour in 2015. He said business leaders, educators and community leaders commonly described a need for improved non-academic skills among high school graduates.

Neuenswander said 83% of business leaders reported college graduates lacked work ethic or professionalism. Others said there was a need for better verbal communication skills and real-world application skills.

“Yes, it is important to have knowledge,” Neuenswander said. “Let’s see how we’re doing relative to the standards but not all we should be valuing in our system and in our students.”

Watson and Neuenswander polled attendees in the Auburn-Washburn school district, as they did at each stop along this tour, to determine how Kansas should proceed in the coming years. 

Among those in attendance was Sen. Brenda Dietrich, a Topeka Republican and former superintendent of the Auburn-Washburn school district. She said she was eagerly anticipating the final figures and feedback from across the state.

“I want to see what people are telling them because I’m on the Education Committee and we need to know that legislatively,” Dietrich said. “I think it’s great that we’re fully funding kindergarten and we’re fully funding the school finance formula, but what else do we need to be doing to support our schools to make sure that every child is able to get a world class education?”

Rick Kloos, a Berryton Republican who also serves on the Senate Education Committee, said the feedback would prove important to policy conversations in the upcoming session. He praised improving graduation rates and the work being done along the statewide tour to assess educational needs.

“Finding the gifts and pulling it out of each student, showing that they are valued and have a place in society is what’s important,” Kloos said.

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Noah Taborda
Noah Taborda

Noah Taborda started his journalism career in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Missouri, covering local government and producing an episode of the podcast Show Me The State while earning his bachelor’s degree in radio broadcasting at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Noah then made a short move to Kansas City, Missouri, to work at KCUR as an intern on the talk show Central Standard and then in the newsroom, reporting on daily news and feature stories.