CHEYENNE – An education report released Wednesday shows Wyoming students scored higher than national averages on standardized reading and math tests.
Wyoming students outperformed students nationwide on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the Nation’s Report Card, given every two years to fourth- and eighth-grade students. In Wyoming, about 8,900 students took this year’s test across about 210 schools.
“This is one metric that we take pretty seriously in Wyoming,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow said. “It’s not the only metric, but it’s a big piece of the puzzle.”
The biennial report is unique because it allows Wyoming both to compare its own test results over time and get an idea of how it stacks up nationally, Balow said.
“There’s no other measure that we look at that gives us that comparative data,” she said.
Wyoming outdid its six neighboring states in fourth-grade math scores, as 87.1% of students scored at or above the basic achievement level. The Equality State tied its neighbors in scores for fourth-grade reading, eighth-grade reading and eighth-grade math.
The data also were categorized to show differences in students’ performance across geographic lines. Whether in a city, town or rural area, Wyoming students outscored national averages.
To obtain federal Title I funding, all 48 school districts in the state must be willing to offer the test to students, who are not required to take the assessment, state Department of Education test coordinator Will Donkersgoed said. Some schools were not included in this year’s NAEP sample.
“The most random thing that happens is which student gets tested at which content area at grade four and grade eight,” Donkersgoed said. “That’s pretty much random in terms of whether the students would be taking a reading assessment versus a mathematics assessment.”
Wyoming also outperformed national averages for special education students, as its average fourth-grade reading and math scores were higher.
“Wyoming’s unique funding structure ensures there is equity no matter who the student is, what their challenging factors might be or where they live,” Balow said. “We can see that loud and clear in our NAEP results.”
For years, the state reimbursed 100% of school districts’ expenses related to special education. In an attempt to reduce those costs, lawmakers placed a cap on special education funding during the 2018 legislative session – something Balow said could hurt the state moving forward.
“The special ed cap is a concern to me, and it’s a concern to Wyoming school districts,” Balow said. “We don’t know what the consequences of the cap will be.”
State Sen. Hank Coe, R-Cody, said in an interview Wednesday that members of the Joint Education Interim Committee supported a measure removing the cap during their September meeting in Cody, though they didn’t vote on an official piece of legislation. The committee included the measure in a separate recommendation to the Joint Appropriations Committee.
Getting the cap removed via legislation will be a tough task, as Balow noted the Legislature’s inability to lift the cap last session and the two-thirds vote required for a bill to be discussed during budget sessions, such as the one coming up in February.
“It’ll take some effort to get it to the finish line, but I think it’s paramount as we continue to look at continuity of service for special ed students,” Balow said. “It’s a whole lot less about testing results like NAEP, and a whole lot more about ensuring we have high-quality instruction for our special ed students.”
Members of the Legislature have also explored using Medicaid funds to cover school districts’ special-education needs. The topic was up for discussion during the Joint Education Interim Committee’s meeting in July, but it failed to gain support from a majority of committee members.
“We’re the last state that does not bill for school-based Medicaid services, and we need to,” Balow said. “My assessment is that it’s not enough to meet the gaps created by the cap. It’s not a way to necessarily solve that problem, but it is definitely an efficiency in education that we ought to be realizing.”
Coe, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said he expects to sponsor an individual version of the school-based Medicaid bill, along with Rep. David Northrup, R-Powell, who chairs the House Education Committee.
Following a $27 million cut to K-12 education in the state budget for the 2019-20 biennium, lawmakers and Gov. Mark Gordon are continuing to weigh options to plug funding gaps.
During its meeting Tuesday in Riverton, the Joint Appropriations Interim Committee approved an external cost adjustment, a measure meant to account for inflation, that will add about $19 million to the K-12 education fund.
Coe noted the adjustment is essentially a drop in the bucket, given the anticipated $250 million shortfall in K-12 education funding.
“$19 million, this is out of just under $1.6 billion that we use to fund K-12 on an annual basis,” Coe said. “It’s not necessarily meant to come in and supplement how we fund K-12. It’s just to address material changes that take place every year.”
In 2017, Wyoming was in the top 10 in per-student spending on K-12 education, according to a U.S. News report. Kathy Vetter, president of the Wyoming Education Association, said the NAEP results show the state’s investment is paying off.
“But we cannot rest on our laurels, and we cannot penalize our students’ excellence by becoming complacent about school funding,” Vetter said in an email. “We face a major battle to keep and improve funding in the next session.”