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It's report card time -- for school districts

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 13, 2010 - Students aren't the only ones who get report cards -- school districts do too. And the latest numbers for some troubled school districts in the St. Louis area aren't encouraging.

The two Missouri districts in the area that have only provisional accreditation, Jennings and Normandy, still are far short from making the grade, preliminary numbers released Monday show. And the two districts that have been taken over by the state -- St. Louis and Riverview Gardens -- aren't improving either.

In Missouri, the grades come in the form of the APR, or Annual Performance Report. Unlike the yearly progress reports on the MAP tests, which rank only student achievement, the APR rates the state's 500-plus districts on a variety of criteria, some based on student performance and others based on factors such as attendance rate, graduation rate and the number of advanced placement courses offered.

The latest preliminary APR numbers for the state's districts were released Monday morning. You can find them here . They will be made final next month, after districts get the chance to respond.

The APR is part of the Missouri School Improvement Program, or MSIP, which began 20 years ago. At first, says Margie Vandeven, assistant commissioner for the state's office of quality schools, the review was more or less a checkmark process, determining whether a district had courses aligned with state standards and topics like that.

TheDepartment of Elementary and Secondary Education figured it could review about 100 districts each year, so the MSIP process was established on a five-year cycle. With four cycles completed and a fifth one about to begin, Vandeven said that the process has become more meaningful and more helpful to districts across the state.

"All the components are in places," she said. "The check boxes are there, and we can go in to make more qualitative judgments about best practices."

Districts find the exercise generally helpful, according to David Lineberry, associate executive director for education and training of the Missouri School Boards Association. But he calls the process "a 30,000-foot snapshot" that can signal broad areas of concern. Of more use, he said, are more specific measures that can help districts improve student achievement.

"It is such broad-brush, big-scale data that it probably is not precise enough to guide day-to-day decision making. But on a gross level, as a fundamental report card, as a 14-point scale you can get your brain around, it's helpful."

Fourteen categories

For districts that offer kindergarten through 12th grade, the APR judges 14 categories, for K-8 districts, there are seven measures of performance. The larger districts have six MAP test categories -- math and communication arts in each of three grade levels -- plus ACT scores.

The other seven categories measure data such as attendance and graduation rates, career education courses and placement, advanced courses, college placement and how well a district is closing the achievement gap.

To achieve full accreditation from the state, a district needs to meet at least nine of the standards. Districts that meet between six and eight of the standards can be provisionally accredited if at least one of those standards is based on MAP scores. Districts that meet five or fewer standards are unaccredited.

According to the preliminary data released on Monday, 218 of the state's public school districts have met all 14 standards; on the lowest end, three districts have met only four standards. That's down from 229 a year ago.

In the St. Louis area, Normandy and Jennings have met only five of the standards; in each case, none of the MAP standards for particular grade levels was met. Both districts have only provisional accreditation now.

Earlier this year, Normandy absorbed the Wellston school district, which was dissolved by the state because of chronically low performance.

The two local districts that are now unaccredited and being run by the state -- Riverview Gardens and St. Louis -- also met only five standards each, with none of those coming from MAP scords for specific grades.

If a district has met 12-14 standards, they get what Vandeven called a mini review from state education officials. If they succeed in 9-11 areas, they get a targeted review, and success in fewer than nine areas brings a full review.

In that way, if necessary, the MSIP process and the APR can act as a kind of canary in the school coal mine, warning that there may be trouble ahead. "The earlier that we detect that intervention is necessary," Vandeven said, "the easier it is to turn things around."

To make the APR process more useful for parents and other members of the community, she said, state education officials are getting the performance reports out earlier -- in the past, they have not been available until November. They also are not only measuring a single year's numbers but are tracking the growth of individual students.

The whole purpose, she said, is to make sure that pupils are learning more every year.

"We don't go in anymore and just count desks in the classroom," she said. "This isn't about things. This is about outcomes. We believe your process and your resources are so instrumental, they help produce performance."


Ritenour's review

In the 2009-2010 school year, the Ritenour School District in north St. Louis County received a full review from the state after meeting only eight of the 14 standards. Superintendent Cheryl Compton called the process "very, very helpful."

"We wanted that full review because it was an opportunity to have educators from all over the state come in, visit our classrooms, talk to our educators and provide feedback," Compton said.

She said the advice came in a variety of areas, from governance by the board to facilities to libraries to counseling. She said the district got good ideas and affirmation for some of the things it had already begun doing, particularly in the area of achievement by minorities and for students whose first language is not English.

"What they did was reinforce what we were doing, and they even saw a couple of areas that could be a model for other districts," Compton said. "It was not so much here's something you need to change. They said the changes you already are implementing are positive changes and changes that are working."

She said what the district has done with technology has also helped students improve.

"We are making sure that the tools that are being used out in the world are available to our students," Compton said. "That's another area that is making a difference, and the MSIP process confirmed that it is a good process and the changes we are making are good ones."

Making APR more helpful

Lineberry, with the school boards association, says that the MSIP process is useful, but it would be even more so if the state could sharpen how the data is used.

"I think it's really important to understand what APR is," he said. "These are gross level indicators that are about minimum state standards for preserving accreditation. Of course it's helpful. If you have slippage in those areas, you have to know that, because you have to respond to it."

But most districts could use more targeted data to improve, he said, noting that 320 districts in the state have the department of education's distinction in performance designation -- a percentage that could make the distinguished citizens of Lake Wobegon proud.

It's time to make the data more meaningful, Lineberry said.

"The majority of the districts in Missouri have concerns and challenges that are way past the minimum level of accreditation," he said. "We're working on much more specific and focused areas of improvement, so we need sharper and more specific tools to work with.

"Districts that have that distinction should be proud of it. But they are saying, we really need to move beyond that. We like the award. We're glad we got it, we don't want anybody to take it away from us, but we know we can work on a higher plane, and a sharper plane."

Overall, he added, MSIP has helped, but it's hard to say whether it's helped enough.

"Over the 20 years we've been using the MSIP system, if you look at any five-year span, at almost any grade level and any subject matter, the trend line is up for achievement. So at the gross level, achievement is improving. Whether the incremental improvement is sufficient for our needs is another question."

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.