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St. Louis schools fare poorly in first version of new education standards

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: If Missouri educators were to use the first year of a new evaluation plan to classify school districts, St. Louis Public Schools would slide back into unaccredited territory, joining Normandy and Riverview Gardens, and other local districts would be downgraded to provisionally accredited.

Numbers from the first year of the fifth cycle of the Missouri School Improvement plan, or MSIP5, which took effect in the 2012-13 school year, were released Friday. Also released were the MAP scores that make up a major component of what is called districts’ annual performance reports. The scoring standards require schools to earn 70 percent of the 140 points possible for full accreditation and 50 percent for provisional accreditation.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education says it will not recommend changes in a district's accreditation classification until it has three years of data from the new MSIP5 evaluation system, but the state board of education could change a district's classification at any time.

But St. Louis Public Schools, which moved from unaccredited to provisionally accredited just last fall – only after a special appeal to state education officials – slipped back into unaccredited territory with the first batch of MSIP5 statistics. It earned only 34.5 out of its possible 140 points, or 24.6 percent.

Education officials say they won’t use MSIP5 data to recommend changes in accreditation classification until they have three years’ worth of numbers. Still, city school superintendent Kelvin Adams said Thursday he obviously was disappointed with the first year’s report and somewhat surprised; he thought the district would have earned more than 50 percent to stay in the provisional accreditation range.

“I expected it to be much more,” he said. “There’s still a lot of work to be done.

“We’re concerned, but we’re confident that next year’s results will look different.” He said measures have been put into place to boost student achievement in the school year that just started – such as putting specific schools under the control of specific administrators, including 18 of them reporting to him, and increased tutoring programs.

Adams’ dissatisfaction and disappointment with the St. Louis scores were echoed by Chris Nicastro, commissioner of elementary and secondary education for Missouri.

“We’re concerned, but we’re confident that next year the results will look different,” she told reporters in a conference call.

“But I was pleased to see they have already started a detailed analysis that we have talked about,” she said.

“There is no question that St. Louis Public Schools have a ways to go, and we’re certainly anxious to work with them in making improvements.

The new numbers weren’t particularly encouraging for unaccredited Normandy or Riverview Gardens either.

Normandy earned just 15.5 points of the 140 possible, for 11.1 percent -- the lowest grade in the state among public school districts -- while Riverview Gardens had 40 points for a score of 28.6 percent.

Scott Spurgeon, who took over as Riverview Gardens superintendent on July 1, said of his district’s performance: “My first reaction is it’s a place for us to start.”

He said he was going to be focusing on the student performance part of the rating system, where the biggest share of the points can be gained, and help build student confidence so more of them are likely to take advanced placement classes, honors classes or classes that earn dual credit with area colleges.

Normandy superintendent Ty McNichols, who also started his job on July 1, was out of town but released this statement on his district's report:

“These scores are from tests taken during the 2012-13 school year and will serve as a baseline from which we will move forward.

"While the numbers are not where we would like them to be, there are some areas in which our students did make progress.

"We have a well-researched plan that we have already put into place to assist our students and staff in the key academic areas.  We developed and expanded programs in literacy and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) as a result of our review of district needs. 

"These MAP numbers confirm that we are on the right path in terms of our focus.”

Kansas City, the third unaccredited district in the state, earned 84 points for 60 percent, in the provisional accreditation range.

Jennings, which currently is provisionally accredited, would remain in that classification if the first year’s numbers hold. It earned 92 points, for a score of 65.7 percent. It would be joined in the provisionally accredited category by University City, with 93.5 points and 66.8 percent, and Ferguson-Florissant, which just edged into the group with 97 points and 69.3 percent.

Scores for the Missouri Assessment Program tests and the annual performance reports are available on the website of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.)

How is the system different?

This is the first year that public schools throughout the state are being evaluated by the standards of MSIP5, the fifth version of the Missouri School Improvement Plan since it began in 1990. State education officials have said they want at least three years of MSIP5 data before they decide on a district’s accreditation.

But while such changes are usually made on the recommendation of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the final decision is up to the state board of education, and it can change a district’s accreditation classification at any time.

This year’s MSIP5 numbers can be used to determine what DESE calls a district’s accreditation status – how it ranks based on the number of points it earned on its evaluation for the 2012-13 school year. Districts that have kindergarten through 12th grade, as most do in the St. Louis area, can earn a total of 140 points.

Out of that number, a district that earns 70 percent or more is accredited. Between 50 percent and 69.9 percent puts a district in the provisional accreditation category, while anything below 50 percent ranks it as unaccredited.

The points lean heavily on academic achievement, with half of the 140 total based on student scores in English, math, science and social studies. Most of that number comes from overall scores, but some come from scores of students in a so-called “super subgroup” made up of students in five categories: black, Hispanic, students with disabilities, those whose main language is other than
English and those from low-income families.

The other half of the 70 points comes from graduation rates, attendance rates and how well students are prepared for college or a career after graduation.

Nicastro said that of the 552 school districts or charter schools in the state, 12 scored below 50 percent; 31 were in the 50-69.9 percent range; 265 had 70-90 percent; and 244 had more than 90 percent.

Besides the three basic levels of accreditation, MSIP5 also has a higher level of "accreditation with distinction" for districts that earn 90 percent or more of their possible points, plus meeting other criteria.

But at their meeting in Jefferson City earlier this week, board members were unable to come to any sort of consensus of what those criteria should be. The one thing they seemed to agree on is that, unlike the current situation where so many of the state’s school districts are designated as accredited with distinction, not all of them are very distinctive.

Instead, they want the new format to make that category more special, so it includes the “high fliers” who perform well year after year. As board member Mike Jones of St. Louis put it:

“Just because you make the major leagues does not mean you belong in the Hall of Fame.”

What do all those zeroes mean?

When people try to analyze the numbers, in many cases they will see a string of zeroes in the columns where districts are supposed to get points for academic performance.

Education officials stressed that the zeroes do not mean that no students passed the test. Rather, they mean that under the new scoring system, districts did not earn the points they needed by showing continuous improvement or individual student growth.

“There is a certain threshold of improvement needed,” said Margie Vandeven, deputy commissioner. “If a district has a zero there, they just did not show sufficient improvement to earn anything. It doesn’t mean they had zero children who were proficient.”

For St. Louis Public Schools, Adams said parents and others have to make sure to look beyond the zeroes where the district failed to earn any points and dig into data for individual schools as well as other supporting data.

“I think they have to look at the whole,” he said. “They can’t just look at one number and say wow, a 24, the district is failing.”

Vashon High School, for example, had scores of zero, yet Adams said, “there were kids who scored very well at Vashon, but the overall way the scores were totaled was zero.”

Asked whether he thought MSIP5 was not necessarily a fair way to judge school districts in urban areas, Adams replied: “If this is the standard the state has put into place, it’s our responsibility to try to reach it.”

Nicastro said that school-level reports, available for the first time, should help parents find information they need for where their children attend class.

“If I’m the parent of a child going to a school that is not getting any points in English language arts,” she said, “I would be asking some questions. I think this will give people a lot more information.”

But she also said that comparisons between the old version of MSIP and the new one are difficult because the numbers don’t really match up. Asked whether MSIP5 represents increased rigor for schools, as promised when it was adopted, she said: 

“I think it’s probably too soon to say, just like you can’t make a real call on accreditation based on one year of data.

“I do think that as we start analyzing further how each of these standards was met, whether it was through status or progress or growth, that will give us good information about the rigor of the system.”

Dipping below the accreditation line

For a few area districts, the first-year numbers brought them uncomfortably near the point where they could lose full accreditation.

Art McCoy, superintendent in Ferguson-Florissant, said that even though this was the first year that official MSIP5 numbers came out, the district has been simulating how it would do when the standards became official.

So while he was disappointed with the 97 points the district earned, he said that the total was up from the 90 points it would have achieved a year earlier, and it is just one point from moving above the 70 percent threshold for full accreditation.

He acknowledged that the MSIP5 standards are “stretch goals,” and he said he has no doubt that his district will be able to make the grade.

“We’re up to the challenge,” McCoy said. “I love the charge because the students deserve the best.

“We’re optimistic and confident that we’ll be there by the time MSIP5 is in place for school accountability.”

With the new standards in place, plus new evaluations for teachers and the upcoming common core – not to mention the 400 transfer students Ferguson-Florissant has accepted from Normandy and Riverview Gardens – he said the comparisons from year to year are not just apples to oranges but grapefruits and pears.

He also acknowledged the difficulty of teaching students from low-income households.

“Many districts in the state are judged not on how they teach but on who they teach,” McCoy said.

And putting schools in a broader context, he said, he wants to fulfill the promise that the nation makes to everyone.

“Education is a civil rights issue,” he said. “It’s a struggle, and we are overcoming that struggle. We know that we have to push hard. My staff and my community know that Ferguson-Florissant educators are civil rights leaders because we deliver on the civil rights of education every year.”

In University City, Superintendent Joylynn Pruitt said she was surprised and disappointed that her schools earned only 93.5 points, or 66.8 percent.

“We recognize that the data from the '12-'13 school year was the first year of data under the fifth cycle of MSIP,” she said. “Our goal is to look at and analyze the data to really find out where we need to place our focus.

“We’re not too far from 70. Are we there? No. So we’re really having to focus.”

A particular emphasis will be placed on science education, Pruitt said, with partnerships with Washington University and Webster University in place to help raise student scores.

The big difference now from the earlier version of the school improvement plan, she said, is that instead of elementary, middle and high school scores standing alone, they are lumped together for cumulative grades and are all factored into a district’s academic achievement score.

“We have to make sure everything we do is consistent throughout the district,” Pruitt said, “and that we’re doing it to capacity.”

How charters fared

Of the 12 charter schools in St. Louis that have been around long enough to have a report in the first round of MSIP5, two – Confluence Academies and Construction Careers Center – had scores of less than 50 percent, which would put them in the unaccredited category.

Two more, Carondelet Leadership Academy and Lift for Life Academy – were in the provisional accreditation category, though Doug Thaman, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Association, pointed out that both showed improvement since last year.

Others were in the accredited category, except for Shearwater Academy, which had a score of zero and has closed.

Thaman said that overall, he thinks that the charter scores show that the segment of public schools that are not part of existing districts are a worthwhile alternative for parents.

“It is different with every school, since we are talking about independent, autonomous schools,” he said. “If a school is demonstrating it is academically proficient and moving student forward, and at the same time parents are choosing to enroll their students in that school, and you look at all those pieces together, they are a viable option and serving the needs of the community.

“That is why we consider and believe that academic performance is very important, but it is just one indicator. Internal assessment is important. Parental selection is important. You have to look at all of those pieces of the equation.”

He also noted that when schools close, as in the case of Shearwater and others that have closed their doors for a variety of reasons, that decision is also part of the charter experience.

“A charter school opens with a commitment, and through their contract they make very specific rigorous commitments,” Thaman said. “If they cannot meet their goals over a period of time, they don’t stick around very long. They are definitely better for a community than perpetuating mediocrity and just staying open for decades at a time.”

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