Missouri Student Test Scores Still Lag Behind Pre-Pandemic Levels

Test scores, however, won't factor into school accreditation until 2024

click to enlarge Test scores rose almost across the board over last year, but they are still below pre-pandemic levels. - SEMTRIO
Test scores rose almost across the board over last year, but they are still below pre-pandemic levels.

This story originally appeared in the Missouri Independent.

A day after preliminary test scores showed Missouri students’ performance on standardized tests have not bounced back from the pandemic, education advocacy groups and parents urged state lawmakers to take a comprehensive approach at crafting accountability measures for schools.

On Tuesday, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education released preliminary test scores for the 2021-22 school year showing that, just like last year, fewer than half of Missouri students statewide passed with proficient and advanced scores across subjects.

There were small improvements compared to results from the 2020-21 school year, with 39 percent of students proficient or advanced in math — an increase in four percentage points, and 38 percent of students proficient or advanced in science — an increase of one percentage point. However both scores remained below the 42 percent of students testing proficient or advanced in both subjects in 2019. 

Meanwhile, students’ performance slightly declined in English language arts, with a 2 percentage point drop to 43 percent compared to last year. In social studies, ​​40 percent of students tested proficient or advanced.

“You will hear from the school leaders, teachers across the state that in many ways last year was more challenging than even the prior year for them,” Commissioner of Education Margie Vandeven told the State Board of Education during its Tuesday meeting.

Across the state, building closures and extended absences marked the past year as schools still battled with the coronavirus, and Vandeven said the department aims to drive resources to populations that were most significantly impacted.

However test scores won’t be factoring into schools’ accreditations until 2024, when the department will make decisions under the sixth iteration of the Missouri School Improvement Program, or MSIP-6. The new accountability metrics will score districts 70 percent on performance and 30 percent on continuous improvement.

The current accountability process creates a high-stakes environment for schools, Otto Fajen, the legislative director for the Missouri National Education Association, told members of the Senate Interim Committee on Education during a hearing on Wednesday.

“The process we have now, if you think about accreditation, we turn a whole district into one number. And then there are very serious consequences that can attach to that number,” Fajen said, such as district-funded student transfers to accredited districts.

Krystal Barnett, executive director of Bridge 2 Hope, a St. Louis nonprofit that aims for every child to have access to academically excellent schools, said her daughter is entering St. Louis Public Schools and repeating the fourth grade. She said her daughter is two-and-half years behind despite her prior private schooling.

“Those schools have not served her well,” Barnett said. “So I am stuck in a place of looking around to see where my next place should be. And there is nothing that tells me what grade school I should choose for her.”

Barnett said in addition to a school’s culture and environment, reading proficiency is one of the most important metrics she looks for when choosing a school. While standardized tests are one way to measure how kids are performing, seeing improvement year to year is also promising, she said.

Researchers from the Policy Research in Missouri Education Center, which is housed in the Saint Louis University School of Education, previously found that schools with a low percentage of students reaching proficient and advanced levels on standardized tests are also among the ones that have achieved some of the most student growth.

Tashayla Person, vice president of policy for Quality Schools Coalition, a statewide nonprofit education reform organization, said student achievement growth — which makes up 42 percent of a school or district’s score on Missouri’s annual performance report — should be increased to at least 80 percent.

Implementing a simpler grading system to understand school performance would make translating results clearer for parents, Person said.

Steven Carroll, a lobbyist for St. Louis Public Schools who was testifying Wednesday on behalf of the SLPS Board of Education President Matt Davis, urged lawmakers to broaden the scope of factors they take into account, like looking at high student mobility, since 20 percent of the district’s students are homeless.

“We should be dealing with that and looking at those other factors that are affecting educational outcomes instead of one size fits all,” Carroll said, “because that’s just not life, reality of what we’re dealing with.”

Alix Cossette, who testified on behalf of the Missouri Charter Public School Association, said lawmakers should think about how the accountability system applies to charter schools, which can have unique standards to meet and also receive oversight from their sponsors.

“If you’re a charter school, you could be expected to, but it doesn’t really work out, to serve two masters,” Cossette said, “because DESE is asking you to meet these requirements that maybe you’re not actually required to meet per law or per your charter.”

The committee will hold a third meeting likely when lawmakers return for the annual veto session, said Senator Karla Eslinger (R-Wasola) and chair of the committee.

“We really and truly want to have the best opportunity for our kids in the state,” Eslinger said, “whether you come from public education or charter education or private or homeschooled or whichever way.”

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