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Testing, testing: Missouri schools deal with exam changes, delays

(via Flickr/albertogp123)

As August approaches and the back-to-school mindset takes hold, schools and parents typically wonder how students did last year and what adjustments may be needed when classes resume.

For Missouri schools, some of those answers are delayed this year. Even when they are available, their meaning won’t be clear, and that uncertainty is likely to persist for many years to come.

The reason: Changes mandated by lawmakers mean that state school officials have to rush to come up with a new test for the coming school year, then will have to oversee revised learning standards that will result in still another test once the new guidelines are in place.

As a result, Missouri students will be taking four different sets of tests in a short period of time, and state officials caution that trying to compare one set of results to another won’t necessarily provide an accurate picture of how students are progressing.

“This is the first year we actually tested the new expectations for English and math,” said Sarah Potter, spokeswoman for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. “Parents should take a look at it. I think a lot of people are going to be pleased with what they see. But you really can’t compare it to previous years.”

Typically, DESE releases results from Missouri Assessment Program tests in August, along with districts’ Annual Performance Review, which is made up in large part by MAP test scores. That review determines a school district’s accreditation – a crucial number for districts that are unaccredited, like Normandy and Riverview Gardens, or seeking to move out of provisionally accredited status, like Jennings.

Because this was the first year that students in grades three through eight took the MAP tests online, results were expected to be available even sooner. Instead, a memo sent to school administrators earlier this month set a delayed schedule: complete MAP scores in late September to mid-October, and final APR numbers no sooner than the middle of October.

“Information must be thoroughly examined to ensure that it is accurate,” wrote Chris Neale, assistant commissioner in the office of quality schools, “as many important decisions are made based on these outcomes. The process cannot compromise the decisions with either tardiness or inaccuracy.

“With new assessments, and new assessment vendors, the department is taking extra steps this year to ensure that the data are accurate before producing the 2015 Preliminary APR or releasing the final document.”

DESE said earlier this week that statewide MAP data will be released on Aug. 11, in conjunction with a meeting of the state board of education in Jefferson City. But it cautioned that “the results should not be compared to previous results as these are new tests with different learning expectations.”

New standards, new tests

Even as DESE is working to put together the performance review numbers for the past school year, it is on a compressed timeline to make sure tests will be available for the spring of 2016.

All of the pressure is coming from laws, passed last year and this year, that barred Missouri from using Common Core state standards. They were the basis of the tests taken this past spring, while work groups were debating new standards, and they were expected to be the basis of tests for the coming year as well.

But this year lawmakers refused to approve money the state could pay to the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, which is one of two national organizations that administer tests based on Common Core. As a result, coming up with new tests -- a process that normally can take years – will have to be completed in a hurry, in time for spring testing season.

Potter said DESE isn’t ready to talk yet about how the situation is proceeding but expects to have details in a couple of weeks.

“We’re used to this process,” she said. “Teachers are used to this process. It’s just condensing the timeline that’s the real challenge.

“Usually it takes about three years to develop a new test. You usually have a pilot year, a field test year, then a fully operational year.”

As far as the later-than-usual release of APR numbers, and how they might affect changes in districts’ accreditation classifications, Potter minimized the difficulty involved.

“Usually, we don’t take those classifications to the board until September anyway,” she said, “so it’s just going to be delayed a month. It shouldn’t make a huge difference for districts.

“They do have access now to their MAP scores, so they can make adjustments based on how students did already going into the school year. What they’re missing is the overall picture that affects accreditation classification.”

Normandy Superintendent Charles Pearson, who will be beginning his first full school year as leader of the unaccredited district that is being run by a state-appointed board, said the district’s focus won’t change.

“Normandy is focusing on a successful beginning of the school year and our continued efforts to improve student achievement,” he said in an emailed statement. “Last year’s results are an important piece of our work, and the test scores will provide us additional information that will inform our improvement efforts moving forward.

“However, the delay in the APR list will not cause us to divert our attention to our improvement efforts in the classrooms and throughout the district. Our 2014-17 Accountability Plan had aggressive performance goals set for next year. We will use the second year’s goals to monitor our success as the year begins.”

Last year, Normandy had the lowest APR in the state, earning just 7.1 percent of the 140 points possible.

Beyond Common Core

Coming up this fall is an Oct. 1 deadline for work groups to submit to the state board of education new learning standards to take the place of Common Core.

Once those standards are completed and submitted to the board, they have to be the subject of at least one public hearing and other review. The final product is set to be in place for the 2016-17 school year; having them ready for that time frame would require the state to come up with yet another test to determine how well students are learning what the standards prescribe.

“We can’t actually create a brand new test based on new standards until we actually have the final product in place,” Potter said. “We won’t even see the new product until Oct. 1, and we’re required to do extensive review and research, bringing in outside experts.

'They do have access now to their MAP scores, so they can make adjustments based on how students did already going into the school year. What they're missing is the overall picture that affects accreditation classification.' -- DESE spokeswoman Sarah Potter

“So that’s going to take some time before we can actually start to put those standards in place, then design tests. It’s all up in the air right now.”

The law that mandated Missouri come up with its own standards to replace Common Core also says that the results of a pilot assessment cannot be used to lower a district’s accreditation classification, though Potter said they could be used to raise such status if warranted.

She also noted that while the test results couldn’t be used to lower accreditation, other criteria exist that could be used in such a way, including failure to implement a school improvement plan or significant change in student performance over multiple years.

In any case, she said, taking the extra time to make sure test results and other factors that go into determining a district’s APR are accurate makes the delay reasonable.

“We can’t lower a district’s accreditation,” Potter said, “so we’re trying new ways to calculate it this year. We want to make sure we get it right.”

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.