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English Learners Make Gains; Achievement Gap Persists For Missouri's Black Students

Ninth graders take notes during a social studies class at the recently opened KIPP St. Louis High School on Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2017.
File Photo | Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio
Students take notes during a social studies class at KIPP St. Louis High School in 2017.

How the Missouri education department measures student comprehension and school performance is complicated. The manual for determining a school’s performance is dozens of pages long. 

Making it even more complex, students have taken four different sets of tests in six years. Just when the test saw stability, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education overhauled the way it presents school performance (in short, it got more colorful and less numerical).

We had the headlines for what to make of this year’s Annual Performance Reports and Missouri Assessment Program tests. But now that there’s been time to digest the data, here are takeaways:

Urban schools are getting kids caught up

Meramec Elementary School Principal Jonathan Strong works with a preschool student on writing letters. Strong will have more flexibility next year to improve the St. Louis school.
Credit File Photo | Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio
Jonathan Strong, principal of St. Louis Public Schools' Meramec Elementary School, works with a preschool student on writing letters in March.

If a student enters third grade reading at a kindergarten level, he's probably not going to reach proficiency in one year, no matter how great the teacher is. But if that student finishes third grade reading at a second grade level, he’s achieved two years of growth in just one. Those are big gains – and the first column on the new-look report card measures them. 

Credit Missouri Dept. of Elementary and Secondary Education

You’ll see that Kansas City Public Schools are exceeding the state’s expectations for student growth in English language arts and on track to meet them in math. What’s really impressive here is subgroup achievement, which in Missouri includes black, Hispanic and low-income students, as well as students with disabilities and English learners. (These subgroups have historically fallen short of the state target.) KCPS is exceeding the state’s expectations for subgroup achievement in both English and math.

Other urban districts are also helping their students make big gains, especially in English language arts. Urban districts on both sides of the state – Raytown, Grandview, Independence and Center in Kansas City, and Maplewood-Richmond Heights, Bayless and Mehlville in St. Louis – all exceeded the state’s expectations for student growth.

“I don’t ever want this to come out like we’re making excuses, but some districts got it a lot harder than other school districts,” KCPS Superintendent Mark Bedell said. “But we have students who show up with a tremendous amount of trauma and a lot of variables working against them ... (and this) gives our teachers credit.”

English language learners are closing gaps ...

Sasha Walchli works with third-grade English-language learners at Green Trails Elementary School in the Parkway School District. The number of non-English speakers in the district has doubled in the last eight years.
Credit File Photo | Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio
Sasha Walchli works with English-language learners at Green Trails Elementary School in the Parkway School District in 2018.

Constantly changing assessments for a half-decade makes year-to-year comparisons of how students are doing difficult. However, it’s possible to look at gaps in proficiency among different groups of test-takers.

That span in test scores is also called an “achievement gap,” or the distance between how well two different groups do in school, typically between white students and a minority group.

Students whose first language is not English — typically immigrants and refugees who have relocated to the U.S. — are making gains in proficiency.

State education officials say the improvement has been happening long enough to call it a trend. Going back to 2016, English-language learners have closed the gap by about 5 percentage points in reading and math compared to white students and by 2.6 percentage points in reading and 4.2 percentage points in math compared to the state average.

“Very pleased to see English learners on the rise,” said Assistant Education Commissioner Chris Neale.

This is a particularly promising trend since the English-language learner population in some St. Louis-area school districtshas doubled or tripled and led to a shortage of certified ELL instructors in some of those districts.


... but other achievement gaps are holding firm

Achievement gaps in many other areas have remained stubbornly large, despite closing those gaps being a priority of federal education policy for two decades.

White students in Missouri have scored about 23 percentage points better on both tests than black students for five straight years. And 71% of the state's 883,000 K-12 students are white.

As we noted above, the districts that educate the majority of Missouri’s black students, those in urban school districts, are making gains in getting those students caught up.


There's a ceiling for high-achieving districts

When districts aren’t meeting the state’s expectations for student growth, DESE refers to it as “floor.” But for districts that are outperforming the state as a whole, it’s more like a ceiling — there isn’t much room for them to grow.

Take Kirkwood in suburban St. Louis. This year and last year, more than 70% of Kirkwood students passed the new, harder English language arts test when only 49% of their peers did statewide.

“That is not of a great deal of concern to us because it isn’t particularly unusual for a high-scoring district to show us a little or no growth, simply because of lack of headspace above their high score,” said assistant commissioner Neale.

So Kirkwood and other affluent districts might not be seeing as much growth from students as some low-income districts are, but they have far fewer students who need to grow several grade levels each year to catch up.

Follow Ryan and Elle on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney; @ellemoxley

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org

Ryan was an education reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.