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New exams test Missouri schools, students

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frankieleon | Flickr

As Missouri schools head into the heart of standardized test season, with new exams given in new ways, state education officials are checking closely to see if districts will make the grade.

For students in grades 3-8, this year’s Missouri Assessment Program, the MAP tests, in English and math are different in two ways. First, pencil-and-paper answer sheets have given way to computerized exams. Second, the tests are based on the Common Core standards, which will be in force while work groups devise new Missouri-based standards to replace them.

The testing window opened on March 30 and extends through May 22. The heaviest activity is expected to begin this week, testing districts' technological abilities to handle the new online procedures.

As the furor over Common Core and the tests based on them continue to simmer nationwide, many parents are keeping their children home during test time in a not-so-subtle protest. While the so-called "opt-out movement" hasn’t made much of a ripple in Missouri, that doesn’t mean the new tests are being accepted without objection.

One more wrinkle is the acknowledgement that because some of this year’s MAP tests are based on new material, scores that are released later this year are likely to be lower than scores have been in the past. But state law guarantees that no school district’s accreditation classification can fall this year as a result of the lower scores.

Despite all of the changes in what is a standard spring ritual in Missouri schools, officials say they have seen little evidence so far of anything but isolated problems, largely because of the long lead time districts had to get ready.

“Things have gone pretty smoothly for the first administration of online assessment for this many grade levels,” said Sharon Helwig, the state’s assistant commissioner in the office of college and career readiness.

“We haven’t seen those system-wide issues like we had anticipated in some areas of the state.”

Adds Roger Kurtz, executive director of the Missouri Association of School Administrators:

“I’m sure there will be some bumps in the road, and I’m sure there will be some issues out there somewhere regarding the technology, but for the most part I think that our folks have done a pretty good job preparing for that over the past two years,” Kurtz said.

Opposition continues to simmer

Protests against an increasing number of standardized tests have been growing in pockets across the nation for years, but recently they have increased in number and intensity.

Objections come from both sides of the political spectrum – from the right, which objects to Common Core and widespread testing as a federal takeover of what should be under local control, and from the left, which says too much time on tests and getting ready for them takes students away from education in the arts and, in some cases, even recess.

Missouri has acknowledged the latter and has cut back on some of the tests formerly administered to students in the state.

The organization known as FairTest: National Center for Fair & Open Testing, sends out regular bulletins about the latest opt-out movements, with topic headlines like “Common Core brings new chapter of high-stakes test horrors.”

Just last week, the group wrote about widespread technical glitches disrupting testing in five states: Colorado, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada and North Dakota.

Elsewhere, it was not computer problems but parents who prompted issues with the tests. Opting out of the exams was reported on a wide scale, with some small districts in New York state saying as many as 70 percent of their students were not sitting for the tests.

States have various policies about when and whether families can choose not to take tests. Although Missouri rarely makes an appearance in the FairTest state-by-state roll call of anti-testing militancy, Illinois is a regular.

Last year, the state board of education said in a letter to parents that they could not opt out of the tests, under state and federal law. Still, a number of superintendents and districts statewide have voiced their concerns about the Common Core-based tests, including Chicago.

In Missouri, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education noted that state law bans opting out and said in a statement that the MAP tests are the best way for Missourians to see the return they are getting on the money spent on education.

“Tests are one way we ensure high quality education for ALL Missouri students, including students from low-income families, minority students and students with disabilities," the statement said. "Annual testing along with a high participation rate helps highlight the achievement gap for these students and encourages educators to focus on closing that gap.”

Still, groups such as the Missouri Coalition Against Common Core, encourages parents to keep their children from taking the test and even has an opt-out form on its website, where parents can assert their “fundamental and legal right to direct the upbringing and education of my child which the school may not deny.” Accordingly, it says that even when children do not take the test, they will attend school and parents “expect the school to provide meaningful alternative activities or assignments” while others are taking the tests.

"When you see the school districts dig in their heels like this, it really is an eye-opener for parents." -- Rockwood parent Anne Gassel, who opposes Common Core testing

Another group, United Opt Out – which calls itself “The Movement to End Corporate Education Reform” – has an opt-out/refusal guide for Missouri parents. It says that while the state has no opt-out policy, “The student ultimately should not be forced to take the test if the parent requests to opt out. We believe that there is potential for refusing the test in Missouri.”

Anne Gassel, a parent in the Rockwood school district who has actively worked against Common Core and the tests based on the standards, said in an interview that refusing the tests is a way to make sure schools are properly serving the children.

Not all districts operate that way, she added, particularly when it comes to testing.

“When you see the school districts dig in their heels like this,” Gassel said, “it really is an eye-opener for parents. They say, ‘Hey, wait a minute. Yyou’re not really operating in my child’s best interest. You’re operating in your best interest.’”

She called the Common Core standards an untried, experimental basis for the tests. “We have to take it as a matter of faith that these are going to produce the results they claim they’re going to produce — college and career readiness,” she said.

And, pointing to the recent conviction of several educators in Atlanta in a cheating scandal, Gassell said putting too much emphasis on testing provides “the incentive for corruption. When you make teacher evaluations completely dependent on how teachers do, and you’re holding them 100 percent responsible for the kids’ performance on the tests, it creates a huge temptation to cheat.”

Lower scores but no penalty

Whenever new tests are introduced, scores tend to be lower because of the new material involved. Officials at DESE expect this year will be no exception.

In an interview earlier this year, Margie Vandeven, who became Missouri's education commissioner on Jan. 1, said that because the tests are based on the more rigorous expectations of Common Core and because they're taken on computers, the public should be ready for some drops in scores.

“I don’t expect huge declines,” she said, “but the new test, the new delivery system, all of that needs to be taken into account. It’s not just that students did worse on tests this year. It’s that the whole system is changing and we’re going to see some growing pains in between getting a new start on a new system and getting where we need to be.”

Margie Vandeven elementary and secondary education
Credit Official photo | Department of Elementary and Secondary Education
Missouri school commissioner Margie Vandeven

The transition to testing on computer instead of paper and pencil will actually be a plus for students, Vandeven said.

“I believe we would be doing a great disservice to them if we did not provide them with the technology skills they would need in order to be successful when they enter into a career,” she said. “Just about every test I have taken in the last five years has been online.”

A state law passed last year that created work groups to come up with Missouri’s own standards allowed Common Core to be used as the basis for tests until those new standards are completed and adopted.

Testimony before the state board of education in Jefferson City on Monday indicated that the process is still hampered by divisions among work group members who have different visions of what the new standards should be.

But the law that created that process also barred the state board of education from lowering any district’s accreditation status based on this year’s test results.

Helwig, the assistant commissioner, said that families should not be worried about what the scores will show later this year.

“The ultimate achievement levels that parents see will be comparable to what they have seen in the past,” she said. “We have some control over that kind of thing."

“We have talked about being prepared for a dip in scores, but Missouri never had scores that were as inflated as some states did. So, we’re not anticipating anything like we’ve seen with some of the other states, that had 80 percent proficiency to begin with, and they saw huge dips. Our proficiency rate has never been that high. It’s been a little more reasonable than that.”

Kurtz, of the administrators association, knows that his members will be on the front line of any complaints that come in about drops in scores. So, he said, districts are prepared.

“We’ve given new tests several times in Missouri,” he said. “And, yes, there will probably be a drop in the test scores. Any time you give a new test, that’s going to happen. We just need to recognize that and plan for that and work on understanding why the test scores went down.

“I don’t think that that’s going to be a big surprise for anyone. I just think it’s part of a reality check.”

For more education news, follow Dale Singer on Twitter: @dalesinger

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.