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Wednesday, September 4, 2013

St. Louis Public Schools: Audit Finds Financial Woes, Inadequate Anti-Cheating Measures

Posted By on Wed, Sep 4, 2013 at 12:42 PM

St. Louis Public Schools are in a precarious financial condition and are performing inadequately in a number of areas, including how the district handles at-risk students and how officials monitor testing and potential cheating. So says Missouri State Auditor Tom Schweich, who released a report today criticizing the district and drawing attention to several ongoing challenges.

The audit's overall ranking of the school system is "fair" (on a scale of poor to fair to good to excellent).

"The district does not have a formal proactive process to identify and investigate unusual fluctuations in school [Missouri Assessment Program] MAP test scores or to identify schools which should be monitored more closely," the audit says. "Currently, it is up to each individual school to determine the extent to which compiled testing data is utilized."

See also: Missouri State Fair: Boonville School District Backs Superintendent, Announcer Mark Ficken

Following media reports on testing irregularities, the district increased the number of Quality Assurance Monitors (QAM) and the frequency of monitoring visits, the audit notes. However:

In early June 2012, audit staff reviewed the monitoring forms and found the district was missing approximately 100 monitoring forms for 30 schools. At our request, the Accountability Office contacted the QAMs, but by late June 2012 no monitoring forms had been submitted for 3 schools and less than the minimum four monitoring forms had been submitted for another 12 schools. Two of the independent QAMs, who were paid $500 by the district for 18 hours of work, had not submitted any forms.

In terms of student retention and promotion, the audit alleges that the district is, in some cases, directly violating applicable state laws:

The district does not fully comply with applicable state laws with respect to the promotion and retention of at-risk students. A district official indicated the district does not have the resources to retain all students not reading at the required grade level, and full compliance would place the district in undue financial hardship.

For example, the report outlines, results from the 2011 and 2012 MAP testing in communications arts showed that more than 2,000 district students in grades three though eight were considered "below basic," the lowest rating category. The district, however, retained 155 and 128 students in grades one through eight after the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 school years, respectively.

Of the district's finances, the audit -- full report viewable below -- says that in 2011, the system had a deficit fund balance of $55 million, which has since improved. While the schools have implemented significant cutbacks and completed a one-time settlement to eliminate the deficit balance, the funding "will substantially end" in June of 2014, at which time the district will have to once again propose substantial cuts or find new funding.

The audit includes lengthy responses from the school district. In regards to monitoring testing, "The District's efforts exceed all requirements of the state," the response says:

The District does have a defined and comprehensive formal process in place for identifying and investigating unusual fluctuations in MAP scores once the results are received. First, a trend analysis is performed on the preliminary results received from DESE to determine if any fluctuations are statistically significant. Second, data are desegregated by grade and building level, and summary reports are provided and presented to the Superintendent and the SAB. Third, schools are provided with the preliminary data for potential appeals and to inform their instructional planning for the upcoming year. Fourth, once the final data are received (November/October), another report is made regarding the results and all results are posted on district data management systems (e.g., Student Information System, Edmin, Pulse). Finally, Accountability Office staff provides ongoing professional development on data analysis and interpretation and data system.

Concerning the promotion of at-risk students, the district in its response acknowledges that it's not in "full" compliance with the law, but says it notifies all third and fourth grade students who are at-risk on two separate occasions. The district "has been diligent in recommending the development of reading improvement plans and ensuring that other targeted interventions are put in place at every school for students not reading at the required level," the response says.

And in response to concerns about finances, the district says it "agrees with the importance of monitoring the District's financial condition and taking appropriate actions as necessary." It then outlines some of its planned actions (more on page six).

Here's the full audit, which includes the district's responses throughout:

St. Louis Public School District

Send feedback and tips to the author. Follow Sam Levin on Twitter at @SamTLevin.

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