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Students make gains in MAP scores, but schools still fall far short of leaving no child behind

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 4, 2011 - Missouri education officials have a positive take on the results of MAP tests taken by students earlier this year, but they are still chasing an elusive, lofty goal set by Washington that is now three years away.

The latest preliminary data released early Thursday by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education show that the state's schools improved in all content areas at all grade levels except for one — eighth-grade math. There, after significant gains over the past two years, scores dropped slightly, but the three-year trend remains positive.

Still, what's good news for the state, even if scores aren't rising as quickly as officials would like to see, falls far short of the goals set by the federal No Child Left Behind law. The law requires that all schools and districts have 100 percent of students making adequate yearly progress, or AYP, toward scoring at the proficient level or above by 2014.

That target may be out of reach, but another aspiration for Missouri -- to be in the top 10 states in education nationwide by 2020 -- remains in sight, even if the state will have to pick up the pace of improvement to reach it, said Margie Vandeven, assistant commissioner for the office of quality schools.

"Progress is coming," she said. "We are pleased. We know school districts are working diligently to make that progress. But to make top 10 by '20, we know that they have to increase even more."

Vandeven said that while the MAP results are helpful to districts, they would be more useful if the scores were released faster, so that after tests are taken in March and April, districts could see how they did before the end of the school year, rather than have to wait until the summer.

That timeliness, plus a move to provide individual student level growth data, will give teachers and administrators a much clearer picture of where instruction may be falling short, and give them a more timely opportunity to make adjustments, Vandeven said.

Waivers Possible

And lacking any changes in No Child Left Behind, with reauthorization of the education law stalled in Congress, she said that Missouri may join other states in asking the federal Department of Education for a waiver from the requirement of 100 percent compliance by 2014. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said earlier this year that to free states from what is seen as an unrealistic, unreachable goal, he could use his executive power to grant such waivers.

"Absent reauthorization," Vandeven said, "and it appears that reauthorization is unlikely at this time, we would be interested in pursuing a waiver request. I think it is an issue that Congress will be looking at, but it appears unlikely at this time that they will reach consensus.

"At the rate we're going, all schools in the nation will be listed as not reaching AYP by 2014. Our waiver would not be freeing us from accountability, but it would be a request to put something in place that is much more meaningful for our system."

One of the difficulties in reaching the AYP mandate is that not only do schools and districts have to achieve that goal, but each subgroup of students within a school or district has to do so as well.

Subgroups can include characteristics such as students who are economically disadvantaged, in special education, come from major racial or ethnic groups or have limited English-speaking skills. A district must have a minimum number of students in each subgroup for it to count against overall proficiency, but if it does, making sure that each category does well enough on the tests to reach the proficient level can become a significant stumbling block.

State officials have said that rather than concentrate on MAP scores or AYP numbers, anyone interested in how well or how poorly a particular school district is performing should look closely at its Annual Performance Report numbers, or APR. Those figures are set to be released later this month.

Under State Control

The Riverview Gardens School District just completed its first year under a state-appointed special administrative board because it is unaccredited. The test results there show what a long road may be ahead. At the high school, for example, about a third of students scored proficient in communication arts; in math, science and social studies, that figure dropped to 10 percent or less.

Sherri Sampson, the district's executive director of assessment, said Riverview Gardens officials aren't satisfied with the numbers, but they do see some bright spots.

"We will not be satisfied with testing results until each and every one of our students are achieving at the proficient and advanced levels," Sampson said in an email.

"We are pleased with the determination, desire and compassion our administrators and teachers have for doing what is right for the students of Riverview Gardens School District. We have implemented specific processes to monitor students' daily, weekly and monthly progress.

"We are disappointed that the MAP snapshot was not able to convey the tremendous gains we have made in each building by laying the foundation that must exist for learning to take place. The mindset and culture is truly No Child Left Behind -- we will do whatever it takes."

After just one year, she added, no one could expect dramatic changes.

"The results are consistent with what we know about change," she said. "There is often a dip before a rise. We are focused on specific long term measurable goals and monitoring their progress, while celebrating our quick immediate successes."

Asked about what changes will be made to ensure further progress, Sampson wrote:

"We will continue to build on the foundation that began last year. We have put many programs and processes in place that will enhance student achievement. We have evidence of success in several of our schools; one building in particular, will serve as our model school for the entire district.

"We know change does not happen overnight, but we are confident in the ability of our administrators, teachers and students."

City Schools Show Progress

Kelvin Adams, superintendent of the St. Louis Public Schools, had a similar outlook: Change is coming, but it takes time. He said that MAP scores for most of the system's schools were up, with the exception of a drop in social studies in one high school and a slight dip in fifth-grade math at another school.

"I would rather be talking about major, major growth," he said, "but there is growth in some cases. We're pleased that some results are positive. We would have wanted greater gains, but we're pleased that we're continuing to see growth."

Rather than look at the scores from one year to the next, he said, the city schools are studying the data over the past four years, since the state took over the unaccredited district in 2007, and analyzing it down to the classroom. At that level, he noted, it doesn't take much for scores to drop; even one or two students who are absent when certain material is being taught can make the difference. When teachers return next week, he said, they can learn where improvement is needed.

"We want to be very, very specific about why schools or specific grades didn't do well," Adams said. "We're crunching the numbers now to see what they have to say.

"We have to move faster to get the results we want. I don't want to be negative about it, but we just have to move faster."

As far as the 11 city schools that received money under the federal school improvement program, Adams said results were mixed, but he did not expect to see much change this time around, given the fact that some schools didn't even get their funds until October.

"This is a three-year program," he said. "We would have been glad to see results that were great, but that would have been a little unrealistic."

Help from Washington

While states may feel that the 2014 mandate from the federal government is an unreasonable burden, another program from Washington is more welcome -- money for individual schools, called School Improvement Grants, that are designed to turn around poor performance.

Besides the 11 city schools receiving the money, the grants were made to the high school and middle schools in Riverview Gardens, the high school and middle school in Normandy and the junior high in Jennings. Normandy and Jennings have provisional accreditation from the state; St. Louis and Riverview Gardens are unaccredited.

Robert Taylor, coordinator of the office working with the schools that have the grants, said no one expected quick results from the federal assistance. The important thing is that the schools involved devise a plan, then stick to it.

Still, he said, the MAP results for the schools in the program were disappointing.

"We want to be optimistic with regard to leadership," Taylor said, "so we were expecting a great deal more this year with regards to performance."

He noted that the Washington effort is a three-year program, and the first year was aimed at establishing a climate of change in school buildings and districts. So this coming year, more emphasis will be put on implementing changes and getting scores up.

"We're looking for a number of schools to break away in improvement this year," Taylor said. "It deals a lot with the leadership in a building, but also the staff that has bought into school improvement. They call this a turnaround process. But it is a process that takes time and an intense focus. These are not typical schools.

"When we reach critical mass, we are going to be providing leadership not only to the schools that are struggling but to others as well. Once it comes together, you're going to have that explosion, and the data will show that they're moving forward and meeting not only their own expectations but the standards set by the state."

Charter schools in general did not fare well, in most cases having a lower percentage of students who scored proficient or above than the statewide average.

On the communication arts test, for example, the statewide score for proficient or advanced was 54 percent; for charters, which are allowed only in St. Louis and Kansas City, the total was only 28 percent. A similar story was told on the mathematics exam, where the statewide average for proficient or advanced again was 54 percent but charters were only 22.6 percent.

Currently, the MAP data are a large part of the criteria used by the state to judge whether districts are accredited. That criteria may change, depending on whether the state Board of Education adopts a new system known as MSIP5, which has been the topic of much debate.

Two earlier attempts to come up with an acceptable program for judging accreditation have fallen short. The latest proposal, put together after a series of statewide meetings, will be presented to the state board at its Aug. 16 meeting in Jefferson City. At that time, the board may decide to put the new plan out for more public comment; may discuss it but take no action; or may decide that it needs further work and send it back to department officials.

The statistics are available to the public at a newly unveiled data site from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Called the Missouri Comprehensive Data system, it is designed to guide visitors through the numbers and allow them to show how districts are doing relative to others, graphing the results for quick comparisons.

Data are available in eight categories: accountability, college and career, school and district information, early childhood, education staff, special education, state assessment and student characteristics.

State MAP AYP 2011 Results

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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