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St. Louis' special school board plans to make case for accreditation

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 23, 2012 - The Special Administrative Board in charge of St. Louis Public Schools plans to plead its case for provisional accreditation for the school district in a letter to Missouri education Commissioner Chris Nicastro.

When the latest district report cards were issued this month, the St. Louis Public Schools received seven accreditation points out of a possible 14, a level that could classify the district as provisionally accredited. But Nicastro said the city's school district, which lost accreditation in 2007, would have to show sustained improvement, not just one year, before she would recommend that the district be granted provisional accreditation.

That conclusion did not sit well with St. Louis Superintendent Kelvin Adams, who said that the state should go by the numerical rule that seven points equals provisional accreditation.

Rick Sullivan, head of the SAB, said after the board’s meeting Tuesday night that the three-member panel has been working on drafts of its letter to make its case to Nicastro. He declined to discuss a timeline or what specific points the board plans to make, except to say that he expects the letter to be sent to Nicastro before the state Board of Education meets in Jefferson City Sept. 17 and 18.

Sullivan also would not discuss whether he thought the seven-point score should mean provisional accreditation except to say that “we think there has been a lot of work by students, teachers and principals to earn accreditation.”

Even if the city schools leave behind the lack of accreditation that led to appointment of the SAB, Sullivan said a “very broad front of legal advisers” tell him that just because accreditation is achieved does not mean that the SAB would go out of business and control of the city schools would return to an elected board. The SAB’s authority currently extends to 2013.

The elected city school board has continued to meet even with the SAB in charge.

At the SAB meeting, Adams and other district officials discussed the new system to judge Missouri schools, known as MSIP5. He also discussed changes that have been instituted for this school year based on the test scores sent to all districts in the state earlier this month, several weeks before they have been received in past years.

Specifically, he talked about a reorganization of the district’s central office and a greater emphasis on literacy instruction and support for students who do not read well.

He said the test scores “just confirmed some of the recommendations we’re making,” and said the emphasis on literacy is nothing new, but before “it was done in isolation. This is much more systemic. We always gave it lip service. Now, we’re insisting it be done in a certain way.”

He said that with MSIP5, districts will be judged not necessarily on absolute numbers on test scores but on student growth, how much students have progressed from one point in time to another. Under that change, he said, not only should St. Louis Public Schools do better but most districts in the state will do well

“MSIP5 understands it’s all about growth,” Adams said.

Perceptions of cheating

After the meeting, Adams addressed the issue of perceptions of cheating in some city elementary schools where scores this year plunged after suggestions of irregularities in the past.

In the wake of such suspicions, the numbers released by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education earlier this month received closer-than-normal scrutiny.

At three schools – Ford, Herzog and Peabody – comparisons between last year’s scores and this year’s scores once again raised questions about the legitimacy of previous numbers.

At Ford elementary, for example, last year 38.41 percent of students scored proficient or above in communication arts and 40.40 percent had such scores in math. This year, the percentages were just 10.48 for communication arts and 13.71 for math.

At Herzog, the number for proficient or above in communication arts dropped this year to 9.50 percent from 47.39 percent last year; in math, the number dropped to 8 percent from 43.13 percent last year.

At Peabody, the drop was to 10.11 percent this year from 43.58 percent last year in communication arts and 6.74 percent this year in math from 41.24 percent last year.

No other elementary schools in the city showed such dramatic drops in data provided on the DESE website.

Adams said he had not analyzed the scores closely at Peabody or Ford, but at Herzog, he said the sharp difference in test scores could be traced to “major changes in personnel.”

Overall, he said, test results “haven’t come in the way we wanted. These are not excuses. These are reasons.”

Asked whether he was confident that cheating was not widespread, Adams noted that the system has 72 schools and 2,000 employees, and for the most part, “more people are doing the right thing than doing the wrong thing. Those people we think are doing the wrong thing, we think they are doing it because they do not understand what they are supposed to be doing.”

He said there was “zero pressure” on teachers to raise scores solely to regain accreditation, pressure that could lead to cheating.

“Testing is an important piece,” he said, “but it is only one piece. I don’t think in and of itself, testing creates a culture of cheating.”

Patrick Wallace, spokesman for the city school system, said that Deirdre Jackson, who had been principal at Herzog, is no longer a principal and is now a teacher in the district. He also said bonuses for principals whose schools made acceptable yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind program are no longer being paid because Missouri has received a waiver from the federal mandate.

Asked whether any bonuses are being paid based on how MAP scores change from one year to the next, Wallace said he did not believe any such program is currently in place.

State education officials have said that because of budget constraints, they do not have personnel available to do extensive review of possible cheating on state tests. Instead, they rely on districts to report problems and how they are resolved.

So far this year, more than four dozens concerns have been reported by districts statewide, including ones from St. Louis, Francis Howell, Jennings, KIPP St. Louis, Lindbergh, Mehlville, Normandy, Parkway, Rockwood and Wentzville. In most cases, the remedy was more training, though a teacher in Jennings who defined a word for a student during a test was given the choice to resign or be fired and chose to resign.

While testing irregularities have been reported in many school districts nationwide, it is difficult to say that cheating was involved when scores at a particular school drop dramatically from one year to the next, said Monty Neill, executive director of Fair Test, a national organization that has pushed for less testing.

“In theory, of course, there could be other explanations,” Neill told the Beacon. “But unless the student population changed pretty significantly in the course of two years, the most plausible explanation is that there was some cheating going on. You can’t be certain, and you should be careful with such accusations without proof.

“If a district put in some steps to make sure there wasn’t any cheating, and those steps were effective, and if there had been cheating, then one would expect the scores to drop.”

As more attention has been paid to cheating, Neill said, there appear to have been more crackdowns by district. And given the emphasis on high-stakes testing and the possibility that teachers will be evaluated on how well their students perform, increased cheating is no surprise.

He said more states are using techniques like erasure analysis to detect cheating rather than depending primarily on district reporting.

But even with more states winning waivers from the federal No Child Left Behind requirements, Neill does not expect test cheating to be going away any time soon.

“The requirement to use standardized test scores will be an impetus for more cheating and more teaching to the test,” he said. “States are still, despite AYP waivers, putting a good deal of pressure on schools to raise test scores, whether by high-quality teaching or narrowing curriculum and teaching to the test or by cheating.”

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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