COLUMBIA — A study released by the National Center for Education Statistics found that Missouri uses some of the most rigorous standards in the United States to measure the academic proficiency of its students.
The report focused on the 2005 and 2007 results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is currently the only measure available for comparing state standards in academic efficiency, said Chip Sharp, Columbia Public Schools' secondary math coordinator.
The report showed that Missouri has the second most difficult standards set for reading and math at the fourth-grade level and the fourth most stringent math standards for eighth-graders.
Jim Morris, spokesman for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said the NAEP provides a statistically valid way to compare state standards.
“We think it’s a valid report that verifies what Missouri educators have thought for a long time,” Morris said.
The report looked at the three-year period to determine whether state standards were lowered significantly during that time.
Morris said Missouri made a major overhaul with the Missouri Assessment Program, the state-required standardized test used in public schools. The test was revised in 2006 and transitioned from a system of periodic testing to one that tested grade levels three through eight on a yearly basis.
Morris said the NAEP is given every other year to a sample of schools across the U.S.
“A sample of students from selected schools are chosen to take the test,” he said. “It then measures the results for the state, not the local or district results.”
The stringent standards the state has in place were implemented in the mid-1990s. The Missouri State Board of Education’s approach was to set the bar at a high level, Morris said.
“We wanted to make our definition of proficiency rigorous, define the expectations of what students should know and be able to do at each level. The challenge is for the school system help kids get there,” he said.
Sharp reflected that sentiment. He said that stringent standards may lead to lower proficiency scores in the short term, but in the long run having high standards is a good thing.
“The real goal is not to ‘make some score,’ but rather the goal should be that all students have the level of content knowledge necessary for their future,” Sharp said.
The NAEP also has data available since 1970 that provides information on how students have grown academically over time. The question of whether academic standards are set too high or too low is moot, Sharp said.
“We should be discussing what we want students to be able to do with their knowledge,” he said.
Debate over math curriculum has been heated in Columbia Public Schools, although less so now. Educators and parents disagreed about which approach to teaching math works best in the classroom. The single-subject approach focuses on the use of algorithms and step-by-step sequences to find answers to math problems, whereas the integrated approach encourages students to use real-world analogies and other strategies to solve equations.
Sharp said Columbia students in grades eight through 12 have the option to take either single-subject or integrated math courses. Michael Collins, a math teacher at Oakland Junior High School, said both tracks approach the same result.
“The point is to find the best methodology or lesson to teach students,” he said. “It’s more of how the teacher presents learning opportunities than which track they choose.”
Collins has taught courses in both tracks. Sharp said that according to Columbia district data, regardless of what approach students take, they typically perform equally on standardized state tests and college entrance exams like the ACT. Students also have the option to switch math tracks in their high school careers.
Sharp said grades six through eight began using single-subject McDougal Littell Math textbooks, which feature geometry and algebra I and II, at the beginning of this school year. School Board member Michelle Pruitt said elementary students now use enVisionMATH books, which feature a more conceptual approach to math problems.
All district eighth-graders and their parents are invited to enrollment night at junior high schools to learn more about math options at the ninth grade level, Collins said.
“No one is forcing them to go down one track or the other,” he said.
Collins said each grade level in the district has specific objectives it needs to meet, which brings the NAEP into play. The assessment is based on both state and national standards, but it doesn’t break down the specific approaches used in school districts.
“For example, a ninth-grader has to learn how to graph a linear function, whether they take the traditional or integrated track,” Collins said.
The report also found that Missouri has the second most stringent standards for reading at the fourth-grade level. Danielle Johnson, a reading teacher at Oakland, said the state test is much more difficult to pass than the national test.
“Our district has a challenging reading curriculum, but the public doesn’t realize how difficult the test is at the Missouri level,” she said.
The No Child Left Behind Act requires public schools that receive federal Title I money, which helps disadvantaged children, to take corrective action if their students are not meeting mandated academic standards. Oakland has put an intervention curriculum in place for students reading below their grade level. The curriculum is taught in part to raise reading scores on state and national assessments, but students who don't read at the third-grade level are not allowed to move on to fourth grade, Johnson said.
No Child Left Behind enforces the theory of standards-based education reform and the belief that setting high standards and goals can improve individual performance. Johnson said Columbia students who are testing below their reading level may be reading the same as students in the same grade in other states.
“All three Columbia junior high schools failed to meet the yearly progress," Johnson said, "so it could just be that the state test isn’t the best or most adequate measure of reading.”