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Missouri test scores, district report cards will be delayed again

A person filling in a standardized test bubble sheet with a pencil.
Flickr | Alberto G.

Schools seem to start classes earlier each year, but the results of student tests — and the annual district report cards that depend on them — will be later once again.

The reason: As Missouri learning standards keep changing, education officials have to take more time to figure out what the test scores mean.

Before last year, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education typically released both sets of figures at the same time: test scores and Annual Performance Reports, or APRs.

But because last year’s scores on the Missouri Assessment Program were based on tests using the Common Core standards for the first time, DESE said more time was needed to make sure that the  numbers in the reports accurately reflected district performance.

Now, Common Core is on its way out. And Missouri's standards will be changing yet again in another year, meaning that the release of the yardstick data will be in flux for a while.

A district’s APR determines its accreditation status — a critical decision in the case of Riverview Gardens. It has scored well enough to move from unaccredited to provisionally accredited, which would mean its students would no longer have the legal right to transfer elsewhere.

Half of the 140 points on a district’s  report card are based on student test scores, with the rest determined by other factors such as graduation rate, attendance and college and career readiness.

Again this year, the release of the test scores and report cards will be done separately. But they will be even later than last year. Test scores came out Aug. 17, last year; this year, they won’t be available until at least Sept. 1, according to Chris Neale, an assistant education commissioner. The Annual Performance Report numbers that were made public on Oct. 23 last year will have to wait until at least Nov. 7.

And once the test scores are released, DESE officials say they can’t be compared to scores from earlier years, because the tests changed in the spring. They issued that same caution last year about year-to-year comparisons, so the only valid comparison was for among districts in the same year.

Districts preferred one test

Neale said this year’s two-week wait for data is a result of a survey of districts on how many times they wanted students to take the test. If districts had given a preliminary test early in the 2015-16 school year, DESE would have had a better sense of the accuracy of the numbers that came out of the actual tests given in the spring.

But that plan wasn’t too popular, Neale said Monday.

“They were in favor of less testing,” he said. “They expressed a pretty strong preference for the spring only administration. That means that item analysis and exclusion of items that don’t work, all of that has to go on afterwards.”

Once the test scores are complete — a process that includes a period where districts can appeal conclusions from DESE and the state can clean up the data — the annual reports can be compiled. Neale said at one point it looked as if they might have to wait until December, but the department has been able to accelerate that schedule.

Districts analyze the annual numbers to determine where changes in their teaching and curriculum need to be made. Neale said this year’s two-week delay shouldn’t have a significant effect on that process. And, he added, DESE plans new reports that should provide better information.

“We are producing school level instructional reports that will help in instructional planning,” he said. “Those won’t be out as early as we’d like this year, but we think that we will have that well developed enough in the future so schools will be able to count on those in plenty of time.”

Possible accreditation changes

And for districts on the accreditation bubble, the Annual Performance Report numbers are particularly crucial. That situation most notably affects Riverview Gardens, which hopes to use its improving report cards to move out of the unaccredited classification and stop seeing a drain of students who want to transfer to accredited districts.

Typically, the state board considers such accreditation changes in December. Neale said the delay in this year’s release of the data shouldn’t affect that schedule.

When lawmakers said that Missouri had to abandon the Common Core standards and come up with the new learning blueprint that won approval from the state board last year, new tests had to be drawn up. That process was accelerated when lawmakers also said that the vendor for earlier tests, the Smarter Balanced consortium, had to be abandoned. Until tests based on the new standards can be devised, tests will still be based on Common Core, but from a different vendor.

Because of the turnover of standards and tests, Lisa Sireno, the state’s director of curriculum and assessment, said that more changes will be coming. Tests won’t change this coming school year, she said, as districts decide how to put the new standards into place, but tests in the next three years will change, as first math and English, then science, and finally social studies become the basis of student assessment.

'The department is interested not just in standards and assessments, but whatever kinds of actions and policy decisions we might make that would help driving learning for all students in the state.' — Chris Neale, assistant education commissioner

How will all of these changes affect student learning? Neale acknowledged that the string of revisions hasn’t been easy, but he thinks the results will be worthwhile.

“The changing of assessments is frustrating,” he said, “both to the department and to the field. But in the end, we hope to have a stable and robust system of measurement.

“In terms of learning, I think it’s fair to say that the department is interested not just in standards and assessments, but whatever kinds of actions and policy decisions we might make that would help driving learning for all students in the state.”

And by the time the test changes are finished, in 2020, Missouri hopes to be in the top 10 in education nationwide. Will it make it?

“I don’t know whether or not that will happen,” Neale said. “We are in some measures. There are others that I think are lagging. In graduation rates we’ve already made it. But I think we’ve all expressed some concern over progress in mathematics and English language arts, where we’re somewhere in the middle.

“I would be less than honest if I didn’t say that I was concerned for progress in mathematics, but I say that in the context of changing assessments, in which we do our very best to make decisions and deductions about progress. Yet we understand that with things changing, that’s just a confounding factor.”

Follow Dale 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.