As state education officials release report cards today on the academic health of Missouri’s public school districts, consider a classroom scenario.
If districts are thought of as students, most in the class are doing well, competing with each other for the top spot and gold stars. A smaller portion of the class is struggling, but making some improvement.
And just one is on the extreme end of failure.
The latest report cards, compiled by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, score each district on a wide breadth of data based on results from state standardized tests, attendance, graduation rates and whether students leave high school ready for college or careers.
The score is based on a percentage of points earned in five areas and is considered when state officials determine accreditation. No district is likely to face a change in accreditation until next year.
A quick look at some of the 2014 results:
• Nearly all of Missouri’s school districts, or 97 percent, earned scores in the accredited threshold. Three districts — Normandy, Riverview Gardens and St. Louis Public Schools — continued to underperform. While Normandy did the worst, St. Louis and Riverview Gardens posted the highest gains in the region.
• On the cusp are about a dozen districts statewide, including Ferguson-Florissant and University City.
• No district in the St. Louis region scored perfectly this year, but a growing number were at 90 percent or above. Lindbergh and Spring Bluff — a kindergarten through eighth-grade school in the Sullivan area – did the best in the region, with Rockwood not far behind.
• There were double-digit gains in several districts: Bayless, Jennings and Pattonville among them. Jennings — a north St. Louis County district once in danger of failing — continued to show improvement and catapulted into the range of full accreditation.
• The performance of individual charter schools in St. Louis was mixed. Some continued to shine, such as City Garden Montessori and Grand Center Arts Academy; others still struggle, such as schools with Confluence Academies.
“Over half of Missouri school districts did increase their score,” Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro said. “We’re very pleased to see that kind of progress.”
This year’s scores provide the first window on the impact of Missouri’s student transfer law, which triggered the migration of more than 2,200 students from the unaccredited Normandy and Riverview Gardens districts last year into higher performing schools.
For most of the receiving districts, the transfer students had little or no effect on overall district scores. Concerns that transfer students would drag down performance were not realized in Francis Howell, where more than 400 Normandy students made up a small fraction of the district’s enrollment of about 17,000. According to the state, Francis Howell did no differently on its performance score than it would have without the transfer students.
The same was true in 16 other receiving districts, including Ritenour, University City, Pattonville and Hazelwood.
That was not the case in Ferguson-Florissant. A comparison prepared by the state education department showed that the district’s performance — at 65.7 percent — was 3.6 percentage points lower than it would have been without its 400 transfer students. The district could be at risk of a downgrade in classification if it does not improve next year.
“We need to make sure that we continue to serve all of our students better,” said Larry Larrew, acting superintendent of Ferguson-Florissant.
STRUGGLES AND IMPROVEMENT
The transfer situation took a heavy toll on the Normandy school system financially and, now, academically.
Normandy’s standing slipped even lower on this year’s state review. Student test scores dropped further, and so did attendance. The district received just 7 percent of possible points, down from 11 percent in 2013.
The 3,000 students in Normandy schools last year faced a number of stresses, such as the midyear closure of an elementary school, teacher layoffs, dwindling finances and media coverage of the transfer situation.
“There were lots of distractions,” said Normandy Superintendent Ty McNichols. “This year, we’re trying to stay focused.”
Normandy is operating this year under the direct supervision of the Missouri Board of Education. An appointed board is governing the district. Nearly 45 percent of teachers and administrators are new.
“It’s not acceptable to allow children to be in a system that is not meeting their needs,” Nicastro said.
Riverview Gardens went the opposite direction. The North County district has been considered failing by the state since 2007. But improvements in attendance, academics, and college and career preparation last year have put the district just a few points away from provisional accreditation.
“This year’s motto is, ‘It’s all hands on deck,’” Riverview Superintendent Scott Spurgeon said. “We know the mission we have in front of us.”
But he has concerns. The transfer situation is depleting its bank account, just as it did in Normandy.
“At some point in time when you have to continue to write checks ... there is an end date,” he said. That end date could be next spring or the following fall, he added.
St. Louis Public Schools showed improvement this year, most notably in attendance, graduation rate, and college and career readiness. Nevertheless, the city system could be in danger of becoming unaccredited again next year if further improvements aren’t enough to push it out of that zone.
Superintendent Kelvin Adams has a plan targeting the 18 worst schools with the most disadvantaged populations this year. Teachers at those schools are working longer to better plan their lessons. Adams hopes that makes the difference.
“The challenge is really the children who are below basic — moving those students,” he said.
The state’s rating system is in its second year. It attempts to give parents more information.
However, it can be confusing. Just because a district scores highly on the overall report does not necessarily mean its math and reading scores on standardized exams match that level of performance.
Take Spring Bluff, for example, which scored the highest in the St. Louis region on the report, but not so much on state tests. The district outperformed Lindbergh, whose test scores were more than 10 percentage points higher in math and English.
Likewise, Pattonville had a higher overall district score than neighboring Parkway. But Parkway boasted higher standardized test scores.
That’s because the new system does not weigh all indicators equally. Districts can be rewarded for the amount of academic growth each individual student demonstrates, even if that student remains below grade level.
Across the state, districts did better on overall performance scores this year even as reading and math scores dropped. State education officials think multiple factors played a role, including a high number of snow days and a change in the test questions.
Although the learning standards didn’t change this year, they will this spring, as the state begins testing students on their knowledge of the Missouri Learning Standards. The measures are based on the Common Core, a controversial set of standards adopted by most states. Students will take the new exams online.
“This is really a transition time,” Nicastro said. “We hope to see districts do better and that that decline is a one-year situation.”
Among the success stories of the region is Pattonville, a district with a growing poverty rate and minority population, that essentially rose from a B- to an A on the district ratings this year. Overall, the district’s test scores dropped slightly, but the high school experienced its best results to date, Superintendent Mike Fulton said. Also at the high school, more students graduated with passing scores on Advanced Placement exams in 2014. They did better on college entrance exams and the graduation rate went up.
Administrators and teachers are trying to get more students into Advanced Placement courses. They persuaded Micah Evans, a junior, to sign up for Advanced Placement chemistry this year, even though he was nervous about it.
“I was up for the challenge,” Evans said this week as he and his classmates worked on a lab to decompose a mixture and determine the mass percent. “If you’re not pushing yourself, you’re not getting better.”