The Local Impact of KU’s Achievement & Assessment Institute

Think globally, act locally. For the Achievement & Assessment Institute, a nationally recognized institute at the University of Kansas, this phrase carries a lot of weight. Comprised of many different centers with specific focuses in the areas of testing and evaluation, education opportunity programs, education research, family optimization, and more, The Achievement & Assessment Institute recognizes the importance of a positive local footprint.

“Our work covers a wide range of services and initiatives, but the heart of what we do is improving the lives of communities,” said AAI Director and University Distinguished Professor Neal Kingston. “It only makes sense we would start with our home.”

Housed at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, that home includes northeastern Kansas and the state as a whole. Through strong partnerships with agencies such the Kansas State Board of Education, the Kansas Children’s Cabinet and Trust Fund, the Kansas Enrichment Network, among numerous community organizations, AAI and its centers have been able to impact lives in all 105 counties of Kansas, said Kingston.

The local focus, according to Kingston, provides a way to directly impact AAI’s surrounding community and inform the institute’s work at the multi-state and national level. 

“When you think of the size of Kansas and the variety of individuals that live here, there’s no shortage of ways AAI can be involved,” said Kingston. “It’s humbling to think of the diverse populations we serve in our own backyard.” These populations include students, families, children, educators, and social service providers. 

For example, AAI’s Center for Educational Opportunity Programs (CEOP) supports students, families, adult learners, and veterans in their pursuit of post-secondary education. CEOP is home to federally-funded educational opportunity programs, including TRIO and GEAR UP, that support students from backgrounds that often come with barriers to higher education such as first-generation students and those from low-income backgrounds.

“We work to close the opportunity gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students by providing comprehensive support services ranging from career and college preparation, academic advising, financial literacy, and tutoring,” said CEOP director Ngondi Kamaṱuka.

According to Kamaṱuka, CEOP supports more than 9,000 learners each year by collaborating with Kansas school districts and community organizations in Douglas, Franklin, Leavenworth, Shawnee, and Wyandotte counties as well as the Greater Kansas City, Missouri area. Additionally, CEOP provides culturally-responsive evaluation services by leveraging data and story-telling. 

“A confluence of socioeconomic disadvantages works against many students across Kansas and when you talk about access to educational success, access isn’t enough if you don’t also have support. CEOP programs provide the support that can make all the difference between staying in school and thriving or dropping out.”
Another center directly impacting students in Kansas is AAI’s Accessible Teaching, Learning, and Assessment Systems (ATLAS) creates “technology-based learning and assessment systems that are accessible and academically rigorous.” The center partners with the Kansas State Department of Education to provide the Kansas Assessment Program (KAP) and counts the state as a member of the DLM® Consortium, a group of states participating in ATLAS’s Dynamic Learning Maps® Alternate Assessment System, an education evaluation solution for students with significant cognitive disabilities.  

With a focus on “optimizing the well-being of children, youth, and families,” AAI’s Center for Public Partnerships and Research (CPPR) has many projects and partnerships that impact the lives of Kansans. Working with a variety of organizations, CPPR develops unique solutions in the areas of data management, cross-sector referrals, strategic systems building, story-based research, and more. 

This includes DAISEY, a data system built to help organizations serving young children and families improve their community programs, IRIS (Integrated Referral and Intake System), a referral communication and connection tool aligning induvial and families with resources in their area, among others.

This summer saw CPPR tapped by the Kansas State Department of Education to design and launch Sunflower Summer, an experiential program that provided children and families free access to 70 attractions throughout the state of Kansas. 

CPPR Director Jackie Counts is quick to emphasize the collaborative approach of CPPR. 

“One of our core goals is to support organizations in the field already doing the work,” said Counts. “In Kansas, that includes state agencies, non-profits, and local service providers. And because we have a demonstrated agility, we can collaborate on numerous types of projects, like Sunflower Summer.”

Collaboration is key to the institute and its centers, according to AAI Director Kingston. He points out this extends not only the outward organizations the institute works with through its centers, but to the centers themselves.

“Because each center has a unique focus, but is united together at the institute level, it puts us in a great position to share resources and ideas, developing projects that work toward our shared goals and the shared goals of our partners,” Kingston said. 

In discussing the institute’s local impact, Kingston also highlights the “vibrant” community at the University of Kansas. This is facilitated through faculty grants and opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students to gain research experience that will better prepare them for future jobs.

“We aim to be a valuable resource for faculty across a number of disciplines and areas of research intersecting with our purpose. Really, we aim to be a valuable resource to anyone dedicated to creating a thriving Kansas.