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Plan to evaluate Missouri school districts heading back to state board

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 21, 2011 - After 15 meetings statewide and countless hours of brainstorming on the best way to help Missouri schools and students get better, the latest version of the state's school improvement plan is headed back to the state Board of Education.

Twice in the last three years the board has weighed the next version of the Missouri School Improvement Plan, or MSIP5 for short. And twice it has been withdrawn from consideration and sent back to the blackboard. This year, the last-minute reversal came in the wake of objections from a coalition of statewide education groups that said they had not had enough opportunity to comment on the program.

So Chris Nicastro, commissioner of elementary and secondary education, asked that the board pull the plan just before it went out for public comment. Instead, Nicastro convened regional advisory committees of educators, lawmakers and others in St. Louis and four other parts of the state; each met three times, moving from general discussion of what should be judged in MSIP5 to the devilish details.

Once the results of the meetings are compiled and published on the DESE website, they will be brought to the board at its meeting on Aug. 16 in Jefferson City. There, the board may give its OK and send the plan out for another 30 days of public comment, or it may have enough questions that officials will have to give it another try -- or it may take other actions altogether.

If the reactions from the third meeting of the St. Louis area advisory committee this week at the University of Missouri at St. Louis are any indication, there's still work to be done.

Margie Vandeven, the assistant commissioner for the office of quality schools, started off the meeting with the easy part -- where most members of the committee agree. They want:

  • to keep a component that gives attention to technical education;
  • to reduce the number of tests that were discussed in earlier versions;
  • to use ACT exams that help Missouri determine where its students stand in relation to students elsewhere;
  • and to judge districts on so-called process and resource standards, not just student achievement.

That last part is important, said Jim Simpson, superintendent of the Lindbergh School District, to make sure that when times get tough, schools don't put all their emphasis on student testing to the exclusion of factors like libraries and other programs that may not be easily measured but are valuable to students just the same.
"We need guidelines so that in a recession, people don't just dismantle everything," Simpson said. "We need color-between-the-lines guidelines, so people don't just take out libraries, don't just take out and take out and take out."

Nancy Bergfeld, a veteran math teacher as well as a board member in the Northwest R-1 School District, put it this way:

"If you remove things, for the districts that are under financial pressure, and we all are, they are just going to pour all the money into what is being tested."

In the end, she added, it often comes down to money.

"We want to be in the top 10?" she asked, citing a state goal to rise to be among the best states in the nation in education. "If you put us in the top 25, we'd be happy, in terms of funding. I hate to keep mentioning money, but your money has to go where the state tells you that you have to jump through hoops."

On some of the other suggested measurements, committee members were skeptical if not downright negative.

Take, for example, a provision that would have districts follow their graduates for a number of years after they leave high school. Have they gone to college? Have they entered the military? Did they move directly to the workforce, either flipping burgers or in a more professional or technical job? While such information may be valuable, who should collect it and how it should be used was a matter of discussion.

"How am I responsible for what a kid does six years out after graduation?" asked Bergfeld.

"What if a kid gets drafted by the NBA and drops out of college? Should we get dinged for that? Don't hold us accountable for what kids do once they leave our doors. There are kids who need a mental break when they get out of school. I think it's terrible that we're dictating what's right for kids when they leave high school."

Another prospect that members of the committee did not much care for involved adding additional subgroups to those graded on standardized tests. The way the federal No Child Left Behind system works, school districts are not only judged on whether they make adequate scores on standardized tests overall; they are judged on whether specific subgroups of students make the grade as well. Unless all subgroups hit the required mark, a district suffers.

One proposal for MSIP5 would add subgroups on the basis of factors such as gender, a move that some saw as making a difficult and sometimes unfair task even harder.

"Subgroups are like one more hurdle," Simpson said. "You've made all of the other hurdles, now you have to see whether the subgroups will let you make your adequate yearly progress.

"If you put a subgroup in, take another subgroup out. You can't just keep subgrouping us to death. It's like those game shows where they say you have five questions, and you have to get all five of them right to win."

Added state Sen. Joe Keaveny, D-St. Louis:

"What are you going to use the information for? Are you going to change the way you teach boys and girls?"

Thanking the committee for its service, and noting that similar sessions were being held in Kansas City, Springfield, Moberly and Poplar Bluff, Vandeven noted that the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is not looking to end up a system that is so strict, it will make it easier for districts to lose accreditation.

"This is not trying to set up for a 'gotcha'" she said. "A little bit of flexibility helps people operate in very rational ways."

The ultimate goal, she said, is better results from schools and students -- ultimately, for Missouri to reach the top 10 among states by the year 2020.

"Missouri has been committed to closing the gap in student achievement for decades," Vandeven said, "and the gap still exists."

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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