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Preliminary Missouri school data seem to indicate little progress

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

Three more Missouri school districts scored in the provisional accreditation range and one additional charter school scored in the unaccredited range in this year’s preliminary data compared with last year, the state school board was told Tuesday.

As with last year, just one district scored in the unaccredited range, with less than 50 percent of the points possible. But because the annual performance reports (APR) for individual districts will not be available until Nov. 7, no districts were identified by name.

Assistant education commissioner Chris Neale told the board, which was meeting in Jefferson City, that of Missouri’s 519 school districts, 97.9 percent, or 508, scored in the full accreditation range, with 70 percent or more of the possible points on their performance reports.

That compares with 98.5 percent, or 513, last year.

Ten districts scored in the provisional accreditation range, compared with seven last year.

For charter schools, the number that scored in the provisional range remained the same, at 10. The number of charters in unaccredited territory rose to six from five last year. Altogether, 36 charters reported scores, compared with 35 last year.

Regardless of what the final numbers show, Neale reminded the board, state law bars any district from suffering a downgrade in accreditation based on English or math test scores because of changing state standards and changing tests.

Those changes have also led education officials to caution against comparing one year’s scores on standardized tests with those of previous years.

Neale said the state will use a district’s highest score from 2014, 2015 or 2016 when figuring its APR, though figures from all three years will be made public.

“If a change in tests has arguably caused a reduction in scores,” Neale told the board, “we will take the higher of the previous for purposes of this report.”

Possible accreditation change

Last year, the only district that scored in the unaccredited range was the Normandy Schools Collaborative. Normandy and Riverview Gardens are the only districts that are currently classified as unaccredited, though Riverview Gardens has asked the state for an upgrade because of progress it has made in recent years.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is expected to make recommendations for possible accreditation changes at its meeting in December in Kansas City.

When a district is unaccredited, students who live there may transfer to nearby accredited schools, with their home district paying tuition and in some cases transportation as well. That financial drain has hurt the budget of Normandy and Riverview Gardens since the transfer law was upheld by the Missouri Supreme Court in 2013.

If the state board changes Riverview Gardens’ classification to provisionally accredited, as the district has sought, it is unclear what would happen to students who have transferred to other districts.

As far as charter schools' scores, Neale noted that the state does not give an accreditation classification to charters, but only made note of where the schools scored on the accreditation ranges.

But besides the transfer law, Neale called state board members’ attention to another legal provision that could affect a district’s status. It says that any district whose status is upgraded from unaccredited to provisionally accredited would automatically be dissolved if it lapses back into unaccredited status.

As far as charter schools’ scores, Neale noted that the state does not give an accreditation classification to charters, but only made note of where the schools scored on the accreditation ranges.

But some board members pointed to the scores as an indication to them that charters weren’t doing well.

“I think people hold up charter schools as THE answer,” said board member Peter Herschend. “Why don’t we get more charter schools?”

Added member Joe Driskill, “It’s going in the wrong direction. Public schools are going in the right direction, the charter schools are going in the wrong direction. And I find that to be surprising.”

What does distinction mean?

Besides the three primary levels of accreditation, provisional accreditation and unaccredited, education officials have also discussed a classification of accredited with distinction. But they have been unable to come up with the criteria for it.

In addition to requiring a score higher than 90 percent of the points available, board members also want other benchmarks.

Herschend said the distinction is something that educators would be willing to shoot for, “to incentivize school districts and to give recognition. We recognize excellence in everything else in life, except in our education.”

Others pointed out that earlier discussions brought up the fact that depending on where the bar was set, many district might never be able to clear it.

“It was easy to come up with the 90 percent of the academic points,” Commissioner Margie Vandeven said. “The part where we got really hung up as a state and as a board, was that when we started to say, what are those additional criteria points that will really make a school distinguished, we had a really hard time agreeing on that.

“We’re probably not finished with that conversation, but it was a pretty complex conversation when we all tried to agree on the additional criteria.”

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.