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Shifting state standards make student progress hard to map

For any school district, the path to success is rarely clear, but in Missouri, new numbers create a MAP that is particularly hard to read.

And that picture is likely to remain fuzzy for a few more years at least.

In this case, of course, the MAP is made up of scores from the Missouri Assessment Program, the state standardized test given to public school students every spring. Typically, this is the time of year when districts can tell the public where they stand compared to previous years, both in student achievement and in other measures such as attendance, graduation rate and preparing students for life after high school.

Not so in 2015. Changing standards and changing tests have state education officials cautioning that you can’t make good test-score comparisons from last year to this, and with more changes coming, drawing trend lines won’t become any easier. The overall measure, including factors other than test scores, won’t be ready for another couple of months.

“When the target keeps changing,” says Milena Garganigo, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning for the Clayton school district, “it’s hard for us to figure out what we’re aiming for.”

Still, educators say the shifting standards and tests can’t distract them from their main mission: making sure students learn.

Credit Judy Baxter, via Flickr

“Standardized test scores are one part of a child’s experience,” says Karen Hall, superintendent in Maplewood-Richmond Heights. “We’re very consistent with the message here. We have a strong stance with educating the whole child because of the programming that we have.

“You can tell just by our philosophy and how we educate the child that this one summative assessment does not determine their entire school experience.”

But, Hall added, sticking with such a philosophy and keeping the focus on the best interests of children aren't always easy when adults in charge have other ideas in mind.

“We’re all educators,” she says. “We know what’s best for students. And when we become a political football, it’s hard to do what’s best for children. It’s challenging.

“At the end of the day, it’s about what’s best for kids, and it’s hard for them when things are jumping around from year to year.”

Legislative mandates

Those leaps have been forced primarily by two laws passed by the Missouri General Assembly in recent years.

First came the law that said the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education could no longer use the Common Core standards as the basis for its annual MAP tests. Common Core was still in place this past year and will be around again for the coming school year, but only until work groups complete new standards that they have been working on since last fall.

Those standards are set to be submitted to the state board of education by Oct. 1. Then, public hearings will be held and the board will eventually approve new standards that will be the basis for future tests.

Meanwhile, this past session, legislators said Missouri could no longer pay to be part of the Smarter Balanced consortium, a group of states that all used the same tests based on Common Core. Leaving the consortium means that state educators have to devise new tests for next spring, even though the standards that will be the basis of the exams will remain the same.

So in the 2013-14 school year, students took the last tests before Common Core standards were in place. Tests this past school year were the first for Common Core. This coming school year will still be based on Common Core, but the tests will have to be different. Then, when the new standards are finally in place in a year or two, still another new set of tests will have to be drawn up. That’s the possibility of four tests in four years.

Such constant change makes it hard for districts and parents to get much of a sense of what kind of progress students are making. Gaining traction toward success is particularly important in the unaccredited districts of Normandy and Riverview Gardens.

State education officials emphasized repeatedly that this year’s MAP scores should not be compared with scores of last year. For school boards that are trying to monitor how well their districts are doing, that job becomes tougher in such an environment, according to BrentGhan, chief of staff at the Missouri School Boards Association.

“It’s critical that we have more consistency from year to year,” he says, “so school boards can determine more accurately if real progress is being made on student achievement.”

The key, says Sharon Helwig, an assistant commissioner at DESE, is letting everyone in a district know what is coming and how it will affect the way they do their job.

“It really comes to leadership working with teachers, making sure that they understand what the expectations are,” Helwig said. “The best thing we can do is communicate to them what they are responsible for.”

Another feature of the new laws is the fact that the state board cannot downgrade the accreditation status of any district based on results from a new test, though they could be upgraded if results warrant it. Chris Neale, another assistant commissioner, says that such a hold harmless feature, plus the constant changes, can open the door for districts to look at new ways to gauge success.

“I love the word opportunity,” he said. “In those years when there is some sense of not having any harm come to you, it is an opportunity to relax and open your thinking about the future.

“So whether it’s a district or a state level consideration of other kinds of predictive models for student outcomes, I do see that as an opportunity.”

When standards change and tests change, teachers also have to change. The training that they need – known in eduspeak as professional development – costs time and money that districts could be using in other ways. Alex Cuenca, an education professor at Saint Louis University, says using those resources can also impede a district’s drive to improve.

“With changing assessments and changing standards,” he says, “it takes a while for professional development to be able to incorporate new strategies, new ideas, new textbooks, new curriculum and new activities that meet particular standards. They have to learn how to make sense of what the new standards are asking them to do.

SLU Professor Alex Cuenca
Credit Saint Louis University
SLU Professor Alex Cuenca

“That takes time. With new assessments and new standards, we generally see some kind of lag between tests. Scores tend to be much more depressed the first time we do them, because they’re trying to catch up to what the standards are asking them to do and what the assessments are asking them to assess.”

And the constant changes don’t make things any easier, he said.

“Given this constant flux,” Cuenca said, “you’re almost pushing them further behind, not being able to catch up with that moving target of the standards and the constantly changing assessments. As a teacher, knowing that I’m going to have at least three different assessments and perhaps two to three different sets of standards to learn and incorporate, I can imagine teachers are not really investing in these standards or these assessments.

“Besides fear of job retribution, there is fear of bad publicity when test scores appear. That perhaps is a motivator, but it’s not the best kind of motivator we need for effective schooling.”

Keeping on the path

Still, while the standards and the tests keep changing, educators say they have other ways to measure how well students are doing.

Joseph Davis, who just took over as superintendent of the Ferguson-Florissant schools on July 1, says a focus on reading and writing will help.

“You have to have some way of measuring how well your students are doing,” he says, “and test scores do that. But writing samples do that. Student work does that. Assessments are just one way.

“What I’m after is having students understanding the content. When students understand at high levels, whatever test they take, they do well on it, whether it be a state test, a local one or even a national one.”

At Maplewood-Richmond Heights, Superintendent Hall says the issue of dealing with the politics of educational change and still being able to make progress is “the million-dollar question.” She says the district tracks growth in a variety of ways, and can make changes when progress is slow.

Maplewood-Richmond Heights Superintendent Karen Hall
Credit Tim Lloyd | St. Louis Public Radio
Maplewood-Richmond Heights Superintendent Karen Hall

“We know how to immediately address that with our students, our colleagues and with families all along the way,” she said, “so we don’t have the start-stop, those moments of anxiety and kind of jump-off-the-ship thing. We don’t want that. As we work together and make adjustments along the way, that creates a healthier environment for everybody.

“We’re going to continue the way that we have started our path, and it’s paid off. Because we didn’t waver. We continued to write curriculum that was originally based off the Common Core. It’s hard for teachers, because they haven’t seen the tests. It is stressful. I’m not going to sugarcoat it. It is difficult. But we support them. We say you’re doing the right thing. This is truly making a difference for our students.”

At Clayton, Garganigo put the test scores in this context: “It’s one lens that we use, but it’s not the only lens that we use.”

In the end, says Helwig at DESE, everyone involved in education has to be able to accept and cope with change, even if it’s not always the kind of constant turnover that Missouri is in the middle of.

“Things develop across the years,” she said. “We do not use the same tests that we used 20 years ago with kids. Challenges that students have these days in employment and the things that go on in companies are different from what they were before. We could use the same tests for 50 years, but we would not be reflecting what kids really need to know to be successful.

“If we are truly going to serve our families and kids well by making sure we are adapting and requiring of them the things that we need to, then we’re going to have to change things periodically. I’m afraid we’re going to have several changes in the next few years, and that’s not something we planned to have happen. But it’s the reality.”

Copyright 2015 St. Louis Public Radio

Tim Lloyd grew up north of Kansas City and holds a masters degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, Columbia. Prior to joining St. Louis Public Radio, he launched digital reporting efforts for Harvest Public Media, a Corporation for Public Broadcasting funded collaboration between Midwestern NPR member stations that focuses on agriculture and food issues. His stories have aired on a variety of stations and shows including Morning Edition, Marketplace, KCUR, KPR, IPR, NET, WFIU. He won regional Edward R Murrow Awards in 2013 for Writing, Hard News and was part of the reporting team that won for Continuing Coverage. In 2010 he received the national Debakey Journalism Award and in 2009 he won a Missouri Press Association award for Best News Feature.
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.