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MAP tests show progress, but educators say they're not the best report card

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 30, 2010 - DESE says that MAP scores are up, even though most local districts did not meet AYP targets, but Missouri's commissioner of education says rather than concentrating on what is mandated by NCLB, parents and others should concentrate on APR.

To translate for those of you who do not understand eduspeak:

The latest results on the Missouri Assessment Program show growth across the board, but the numbers were not high enough to meet the annual yearly progress mark set by the federal No Child Left Behind act.

But Chris Nicastro, head of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, says that a far better measure of how well a school or a district is doing is the Annual Performance Report issued by the department, and that is what the public should concentrate on.

So how should parents and others concerned about the schools react to the failure of most school districts to make adequate yearly progress?

"They should interpret it the same way they have for the last several years," Nicastro said, "and not pay much attention to it."

Statewide, Missouri students showed progress at all grade levels in communication arts, mathematics and science. The biggest increase came in 4th grade communication arts, where the percentage of students who scored proficient or advanced went up by 10.7 percent, to 51.7 percent.

But as Nicastro and other DESE officials said in a conference call to reporters earlier this week, because the federal benchmarks for adequate progress keep advancing, as mandated by No Child Left Behind, overall districts fell short. In all, 438 districts, or 79 perent, did not meet AYP, or annual yearly progress mark.

"I think that number is really telling," Nicastro said. "I don't know that anyone would say that 79 percent of our districts are not quality districts in Missouri.

"If you ask most parents how they feel about their local schools, they generally are going to be very pleased with what is happening with their children. I don't know that meeting somewhat arbitrary standards based on one measure is going to change their minds."

One complication of making AYP is that districts and schools are divided into as many as 10 subgroups -- some based on race, some based on economic status or how well students speak English. For a district or school to be judged successful in hitting its AYP target, every subgroup involved has to make it: If just one group falls short, the whole entity falls short.

Local districts react

So many places that generally are considered successful in educating students may not look so good when the AYP scores come out. In St. Louis County, for example, the only districts that met the federal target for progress were Lindbergh and Valley Park, both in math.

Nancy Rathjen, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in Lindbergh, said the district is always happy when every subgroup does well, but often the failure to do so is beyond a school's control.

"Some of these groups are in a subgroup because they are not students who do well in school," she said. "Achievement is difficult for them. When English is not your first language, you're going to have trouble on an English test."

Lindbergh has eight subgroups in English and eight in math, she said, "so there are 16 ways to fail."

Plus, Rathjen said, in some cases, if students do very well next year, it becomes that much tougher for them to make the required progress the next year.

To Vickie Pardeck, assistant superintendent in Valley Park, the MAP scores are like a single snapshot that needs to be looked at in the context of a larger photo album.

"You can look at one snapshot" she said, "and you really can't get a sense of what a child is like. You need a much broader range of information.

"There are lots of great things happening out there in education. People have to put things in perspective. It gives us annual data to look at, but our concern is when every piece of your district is being judged on that."

Rathjen added that parents and others should be wary of making too much of the MAP scores.

"I would tell them that many good districts did not make AYP," Rathjen said. "It's very tricky. You need to look at overall scores and progress of the groups, and as long as the groups are making progress, you're doing what it takes to make sure children learn."

For St. Louis Public Schools -- where some schools reported progress but dozens still were sanctioned for poor performance -- Melanie Adams, a member of the three-person Special Administrative Board that governs the district, said the results were helpful because they show parents where growth had been achieved, whether predetermined levels were reached or not.

But, she said, too much attention is given to meeting federal standards and on the tests in general.

"If you look back 10, 15, 20 years ago," Adams said, "there wasn't this emphasis on standardized tests. But with No Child Left Behind, all of a sudden these became the end all and the be all."

Nicastro said she was pleased with what she called "growth across the board" in MAP scores, in virtually every subject area and grade level, but she knows the state can't be satisfied with where students stand.

"We know we still have a long way to go," Nicastro said. "One of the things No Child Left Behind has done for us that's positive is it has caused us to look very carefully at individual schools and individual groups of children and track their growth over time."

That kind of measurement, she said, is more meaningful than comparing the scores of one group of third graders, for example, with the third graders from the previous year, who are a whole different group of students.

Better ways to measure schools and students

A better way to judge how well schools and districts are doing, she said, is to look at the Annual Performance Reviews done by DESE, which take into account not only MAP test scores but other measurements, including advanced courses, college placement, graduation rate and attendance rate -- 14 measurements in all.

"The research is pretty clear and the best practices are pretty clear," Nicastro said. "Any time you are measuring performance, the more valid indicators you can include, the more valid the measurements will be."

For more people to pay attention to the annual review, she acknowledged, it needs to get more publicity about what it means and education officials have to do a better job explaining why it is a better measure of quality than the annual yearly progress numbers mandated by Washington.

One new test that DESE officials say should give a more accurate picture of how well students are doing is the end-of-course exam. It not only is included in the department's assessment of how well districts, schools and students are doing, but it counts in a student's grade in a particular class, something that MAP test scores have not done, so students often did not take them as seriously as they did other tests.

"One of the best things about end-of-course tests is they allow for comparisons of student performance against state standards," Nicastro said. "With that test being the same, from district to district across the state, it becomes pretty clear what the expectations are.

"We hope that as individual schools look at their scores and start analyzing their scores, they can really point to those educators who are getting high scores on end-of-course tests and begin having conversations about what they may be doing in the classroom."

Reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind law -- which under the Obama administration has once again become known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA -- is before Congress. As a 2014 deadline for all children to be proficient approaches, Nicastro said, support has increased to eliminate the requirement in favor of a more realistic standard.

"Virtually everyone in the education community is anxious for reauthorization," Nicastro said. "Among the things we would like to see is a reliance on multiple measures for making judgments on schools and districts. I think that will be in the final bill.

"We're also interested in looking at student growth. Program evaluation from third grade to third grade or fifth grade to fifth grade is good, but it doesn't recognize how individual students' performance is growing."

Two approaches gaining greater acceptance -- and that Missouri has signed onto -- are common core standards, so states can agree on what schools should teach and what students should learn, and common assessments, so comparisons from one state to another can be more meaningful.

"The point of having common standards across states is to provide a foundation for more accurate and valid comparisons from state to state across the country," Nicastro said. "By establishing those common standards, which we believe to be higher and clearer than we had previously, it will provide the basis for us to establish common assessments.

"Once we have those in place, then comparisons between Missouri and Kansas or Missouri and Maine or Missouri and anybody else will be much more reliable. We can see who is doing the best job and know who we should be talking to."

Right now, she added, Missouri "is in the middle. We're average" when compared with other states. She told a group of state senators and leaders that is considering future education policy that no one should be satisfied with that status.

"That is not what the students of Missouri deserve or expect," she told members of the Missouri Senate Educated Citizenry 2020 Committee, meeting in Kansas City.

More information

Find complete MAP data here: http://dese.mo.gov/schooldata/ 

Statewide results: http://dese.mo.gov/schooldata/ftp2010/State_MAP2010_Results.pdf

District results: http://dese.mo.gov/schooldata/ftp2010/AYP_Summary_District.xls

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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