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Missouri students bomb new, harder test; State promises no more changes

Missouri students bomb new, harder test; State promises no more changes

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Students across Missouri and St. Louis struggled on state academic performance exams last year, thanks in part to a new and more difficult test, according to education officials and data set to be released Friday.

The percentage of students passing English exams statewide dropped more than 10 points, to 49 percent from 61 in 2017, according to the state data. Math fell five percentage points, to 42 percent from 47.

It’s the fourth new test in five years for Missouri students, and the constant flux has drawn the ire of school superintendents and educators.

“What we’re hearing from school board members and administrators is to a large extent frustration that we’ve had these changing assessments,” said Brent Ghan, deputy executive director for the Missouri School Boards’ Association. “Scores could be interpreted as being lower, but what’s really happening is we’ve got assessments based on higher expectations and different state standards.”

Student scores fall into four categories: below basic, basic, proficient and advanced. Scores at proficient and advanced are counted as passing.

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Fifty of the St. Louis region’s 75 districts watched passing rates fall by double digits on the English tests. All but seven dropped points on the math test.

Passing rates even declined in perennial testing powerhouses such as Lindbergh schools, in south St. Louis County, where they dipped by 9 percentage points, to 71 percent in English and 65 percent in math. The Webster Groves and Brentwood districts both posted double-digit drops in English, to 65 percent passing, for both.

Superintendents across the region said they were frustrated with yet another change to the test, and hopeful — as were state officials — for some stability in coming years.

Missouri adopted national standards, called the Common Core, a few years ago. But a conservative backlash led the Legislature to order a new set of education benchmarks in 2016. Soon thereafter, the state started to develop its own standards and tests. Last year was the first they were given statewide.

“The last five years have been very hard on our districts, instructionally,” said education department official Kevin Freeman, director of the Missouri School Improvement Program. “They just haven’t had any consistency.”

Area superintendents explained that the test subject matter didn’t just get harder — the state actually changed the way it asked questions, and required higher scores to pass the tests, too.

“It required kids to think differently,” said Kelvin Adams, superintendent of St. Louis Public Schools, whose passing rates dropped almost 11 percentage points to 23 percent in English and about 4 points to 19 percent in math.

On previous tests, students picked one response, for instance, per math problem. On this test, they could pick several.

The tests also got harder to pass, said Pattonville Superintendent Tim Pecoraro.

For instance, he said, 85 percent or more of his high school kids usually pass the Algebra II test. Last year, not even 56 percent made it.

“It’s not because this group can’t do Algebra II,” Pecoraro said. “The threshold changed.

“That’s why our message to staff is we’re not going to freak out.”

In total, passing rates at Pattonville, in northwest St. Louis County, fell by 15 percentage points in English and almost 9 in math.

“We’ll take the data and make improvements,” he said.

State law bars the education department from stripping a district’s accreditation based on the first year of a new test. That led the department to adjust test scores — one of several measures examined for state accreditation.

Accreditation points in the St. Louis Public Schools and Ferguson-Florissant district for instance, rose enough to keep their state stamp of approval, should they be reviewed this year.

In 2017, those districts’ academic points dipped some, pushing their Annual Performance Report score below the accreditation threshold. Neither lost accreditation — they were not up for review by the state board last year, and would likely have been spared via other state rules, regardless.

But this year, they both earned substantially more points toward accreditation.

The state has cautioned that scores can’t be compared between all of the tests.

And with no year-to-year comparison, the next best thing a district can do is compare itself to state performance, said Carter Snow, coordinator of student assessment for the Parkway School District.

Parkway’s 2018 passing rates fell almost 11 percentage points in English and 7 in math.

The district, however, also compared its scores to state averages. And it found that, depending on the subject, Parkway’s performance was stacking up.

“Typically the state dropped a little bit more than we did,” Snow said. “It’s hard to say it’s progress, but we are satisfied.”

This is all difficult to explain to students, parents and teachers, said Adams, the St. Louis schools chief.

But state administrators said on Thursday that they were happy to finally have a Missouri test, and swore that it won’t change.

“There is a sense of relief that we’re going to have stability moving forward,” said Freeman, the state administrator.

“Next year, you will be able to look at 2019 and compare it 2018, and go, ‘Hmm. That is interesting.’”

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