COLUMBIA — Finally, Columbia Public School District is seeing improvement.
The results of the 2010 Missouri Assessment Program test have put the Missouri public school districts in the red, but Columbia Public Schools saw the most improvement in at least five years, superintendent Chris Belcher said.
"Can we call this a trend?" Belcher said. "Well, no." But he's still excited to see the numbers go up.
The MAP test is part of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002. The act aims to lower the achievement gap between groups of students and teach all students to higher standards. But too often, schools suffer the consequences of not meeting the test-score goal, while their improvements go largely unacknowledged.
Public schools are graded on their annual yearly progress, which is a test-score goal that rises every year. The act aims for 100 percent of students to test proficient in math and communication arts by 2014 — a goal that is nearly impossible to achieve, said Chris Nicastro, Missouri commissioner of education. Students are tested from third through eighth grades with the MAP test, and in high school with the End of Course test.
Although Columbia Public Schools missed the AYP mark as a whole, seven of its 30 schools managed to meet AYP, according to data released Wednesday by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. In 2009, only four schools met the mark.
Cedar Ridge, Grant, Paxton Keeley, Midway Heights, Mill Creek, Ridgeway and Two Mile Prairie elementary schools all met AYP this year. Midway Heights and Ridgeway, a magnet school that purposely keeps class enrollment numbers low, are the only schools to consistently meet AYP every year.
For Missouri school districts, 79 percent — or 438 districts out of 554 — fell below the 2010 AYP goal. As a district, Columbia was among those that did not meet the standard.
In Missouri, 53.6 percent of students were proficient in communication arts compared to 51.2 in 2009. In math, 52.7 percent were proficient compared to 47.6 percent last year.
A 4.1 percentage-point jump might not sound like much, but Nicastro said this was a success.
“We consider these numbers to be significant,” she said Wednesday afternoon during a conference call.
In Columbia, 55 percent of students scored proficient or above in communication arts. In math, 50.9 percent scored proficient or above. This is a .5 and 2.6 percentage point bump up from last year, respectively.
End of Course test scores dropped across the board in science, communication arts and mathematics. Science scores decreased from 2009 by 7.9 percentage points, to 66 percent proficient or advanced in 2010. In communication arts, there was a decrease of 2.3 percentage points to 75.9 percent in 2010. In math, scores dropped a staggering 16.2 percentage points from 63 percent in 2009 to 46.8 in 2010.
These results show signs of improvement, Belcher said at a Thursday news conference. Even with a majority of Columbia schools not meeting AYP, board members sitting in the back of the room remained optimistic about the results.
"For the first time, I'm delighted to see the data go up," said board member Ines Segert. "I think it's promising."
But considering that statewide, only 782 out of 2,213 schools — or 35.3 percent — met the test score goal in 2010, it doesn't look like much improvement, if any, is occurring.
“We know we still have a long ways to go, but No Child Left Behind has caused us to look very carefully at individual schools and groups of children to track growth across time,” Nicastro said.
The district didn't meet AYP. Neither did any of the Title I schools, which may use designated federal funds because they have at least 40 percent of students receiving free or discount lunch. Even if the district did see improvement, it isn't enough by MAP standards.
Each school is broken into subgroups to track the achievement gaps between students. If one subgroup fails to meet AYP, the entire school doesn't meet AYP.
Columbia has nine subgroups based on race or ethnicity, free or discount lunch, English language proficiency, independent education plans and all students together. Only one, the Asian/Pacific Islander students subgroup, met AYP, in both Columbia and Missouri. But Belcher said the district saw improvement, which explained his cheery disposition.
"Our free and reduced lunch group showed substantial improvement," he said.
All of the subgroups, with the exception of the black students subgroup, saw an increase in test results, however small it might be.
Although the school district is celebrating its successes, all seven of Columbia’s Title I schools failed to meet AYP for the third year in a row. Benton and Blue Ridge elementary schools, after falling short of AYP requirements four years running, face corrective action.
The consequences for Benton and Blue Ridge could include changing the schools' curriculums, extending instructional time, making changes to staff or seeking outside experts to advise the schools.
Alpha Hart Lewis Elementary School — formally Field Elementary — and Parkade Elementary will undergo restructuring, which occurs after AYP hasn’t been met for five years. At this point, staff can be replaced, the option to transfer schools is again offered to students, and the State Board of Education can take over operation of the school.
Even though all of Columbia’s middle, junior high and senior high schools have scored under the AYP goal for at least four years, only Douglass High School will face sanctions because it's Title I. Non-Title I schools don't face repercussions for failure to meet AYP.
As a district, Columbia Public Schools is now on its seventh year of sanctions and has been placed at district improvement level 3. The label holds its own set of sanctions, which includes removing schools from the district, replacing district administrators, abolishing or restructuring the district and allowing students to transfer to other districts.
During the hour-long news conference, Belcher worked to address both the good and the bad news of this year's results. He almost got lost during a diatribe about his unhappiness with No Child Left Behind, but he managed to hold back, letting only a few complaints slip through.
One complaint Belcher voiced was that MAP doesn't provide an accurate report card of a school's performance.
"These scores are just a snapshot of our health (as a district)," he said.
MAP results might say the district is failing, but not all standards corroborate. According to data released in 2009 by the district, the district exceed the state average in the percent of ACT test-takers scoring at or above college readiness benchmarks.
The data show that in 2009, district students scored 10 percentage points higher than the state average in English, 18 points higher in math, 13 in reading and 18 in science.
Belcher and Nicastro also wanted students and parents in the district to keep in mind that No Child Left Behind's proficiency levels are nearly impossible for schools to meet.
Belcher pointed to MAP's requirement that non-native English speaking students be held to the same proficiency level as native English-speaking classmates. Students with learning disabilities are also held to that proficiency level.
"Every year we have more and more districts on the list for not meeting AYP," Nicastro said. "Over the years, we’ve come to expect that that number will grow. It's going to be extremely rare for a district to get 100 percent of children at proficient."
The key, Nicastro said, is to put AYP in the background and focus on the state's annual performance report instead. The report looks at multiple measures of success, including a student's individual progress, unlike MAP, which looks just at test scores on the MAP test.
"We believe the annual progress reports are a much better reflection of student performance than the AYP," she said.
Missouri's annual performance report won't be released until late September or early October, Nicastro said, but the state has seen growth in several fields.
"One flaw of No Child Left Behind is it sanctions, and labels are based on a single measure of student performance," Nicastro said. "The annual progress report is based on 14 measures of student performance; the more valid indicators you can include, the better the overall measurement will be."
This is why Nicastro and other members of the department of education are looking forward to President Barack Obama’s proposal to change the act when it is considered for reauthorization.
"We’re hoping with the reauthorization, some of the flaws of NCLB will be addressed," Nicastro said.
The proposal would authorize $29 billion in aid for schools, a 16 percent increase. Most of the new money would be delivered through competitive grants, rather than formulas that would spread it more evenly among states,” according to the Washington Post.
The president’s plan looks to measure a student’s “readiness for college and success in an information-age workplace,” rather than judge a school’s success based on a grade-level proficiency rate.
The plan also puts more emphasis on helping at-risk schools. The president’s plan creates a $200 million grant program to states and districts who lengthen the school day or year to increase learning time for students.
But for now, Nicastro said everyone at the State Board of Education is taking this year's MAP results seriously, but that doesn't mean they think the results speak to a school's success.
"We had 79 percent of (of Missouri school districts) that didn't meet AYP," Nicastro said. "I think that number is pretty telling. I don't think people would say 79 percent of our districts are failing."