The music starts as flashlights flicker in the audience. A spotlight shines on the stage. Kids burst through a paper wall like football players on a Friday night, medals dangling from their necks.
This was the scene at Parkade Elementary School last spring as its leaders sought to encourage students to do well on the Missouri Assessment Program, or MAP.
But six months later, Parkade learned it had failed to meet the “adequate yearly progress” standards in communication arts and math set forth by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which judges progress through standardized test scores. It was the first time that Missouri students were judged under the new act, which penalizes failing schools.
Why did Parkade — and more than half of the public schools in Columbia and the district as a whole — fall short of the federal benchmark? Frustrated teachers and principals point to different standards of academic proficiency, lack of meaningful motivation for students taking standardized tests and unrealistic expectations for some groups of students, such as those for whom English is a second language.
“There’s no motivation except for personal or school pride. There’s nothing to hold the kids accountable,” said Bruce Brotzman, principal of Rock Bridge High School. Rock Bridge fell short of the No Child Left Behind Act standards in both math and communication arts.
“Don’t make us responsible for everything,” said Tom Schlimpert, principal of Lange Middle School. “The stakes are going up (with No Child Left Behind requirements), but responsibility is a three-legged stool of the child, family and school. Only one leg is being held accountable.”
Lange did not meet the act’s “adequate yearly progress” requirements in seventh-grade communication arts measured by MAP tests last spring. The whole school failed because three groups of students — black students, poor students and students with disabilities — did not meet the federal standard, according to statistics on the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Web site.
The No Child Left Behind Act, signed by President Bush in January 2002, requires schools to consistently achieve a certain degree of progress in math and English proficiency each year until the goal, 100 percent proficiency, is achieved in 2014. Not every grade took the MAP last spring. By the 2005-06 school year, grades three through eight must be tested in both subjects. Science must be added by 2007-08.
However, simple progress does not equal a passing grade. Students are categorized into several “cells” by ethnicity, English proficiency, disabilities and economic status. Test scores aside, ninety-five percent of each group — 30 or more students — must take the test for the whole group to pass. All group scores must reach the same benchmark.
Last time around, 19.4 percent of Missouri students in each group had to achieve a score considered “proficient” or “advanced” for a school to meet the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act.
The percentage of students needed to pass increases each year and varies by state.
Whatever Columbia schools can try to motivate test-taking students, they will.
For Parkade fourth-grader Selena Houk, motivation to succeed began with the medal pep rally she saw last year, even though she did not get to participate.
“I was too young to do it last year, but it was real cool how they busted through the barriers,” she said.
After scoring high on her MAP in April, Selena thinks it will “be cool” to be on stage in front of her peers this spring — although she admitted she does get stage fright. The pep rally is meant to motivate students and congratulate the students who scored high on the MAP the previous year.
Along with monthly spirit assemblies, guest speakers and other displays about excellence, the PTA at Lange posted inspirational messages around campus and provided drinks and snacks for the students during test week.
Many students know there is not much they can do to prepare. Latisha Hickem, a fifth-grader at Parkade, does not worry about the MAP. She said that she and her classmates study ordinary things every day in class and that she feels prepared.
“They’re trying to get us ready throughout the year,” said Emily Kummerfeld, a seventh-grader at Lange.
After the release of MAP results to the public last month, misconceptions have plagued teachers and principals. One public misconception is the meaning of the term “proficiency,” upon which so much rests.
Many states have four levels of proficiency in their standardized tests. MAP has five levels of proficiency. The two top rungs of Missouri’s proficiency ranking are considered good enough under the act’s requirements.
But the state’s third level, “nearing proficiency,” which would be considered proficient in some states, is not considered proficient in Missouri. That means, in effect, that Missouri is held to a slightly higher standard.
“These are very high standards,” Brotzman said. “If adults took these tests, they would see how challenging they are. This is not trying to achieve minimal competency.”
Compared with the state averages on the most recent MAP test, Columbia’s school averages in both communication arts and math were higher in every grade level tested. But the district as a whole did not meet the No Child Left Behind Act’s benchmarks because several subgroups did not meet the requirements. The groups that fell short overall were: blacks, Asians, Hispanics, poor students, English as a second language students and students with disabilities.
Stephanie Wightman, a seventh-grade teacher at Lange, thinks there is a large misunderstanding about failing schools.
“Just because a school has poor scores, doesn’t mean that poor learning is going on,” Wightman said. “And high scores don’t mean that a school is doing everything right. The test is one of many measures and should not be the only one used.”
Tom Schlimpert, principal at Lange, spoke about the change from year to year. “You have different students taking the tests each year and each year is different. This year we had increases in MAP scores and decreases in California Achievement Test scores in the same grade,” he said. “It’s comparing apples to oranges.”
From utter silence to raised voices, teachers and principals in Columbia are dealing with the MAP results and No Child Left Behind requirements as best they can.
Several teachers at Lange and Parkade did not want to speak about MAP scores, afraid that their comments would be misconstrued. However, seventh-grade teacher Jonette Ford was specific with her concerns.
“What disturbs me most is that the emphasis is on testing, not on teaching,” Ford said. “It consumes everything we do — it takes over instruction.
“When people ask about your teaching, it’s not about the learning objectives you’re reaching or how you’re enhancing growth. It’s how can what you’re doing improve test scores. Kids are not a test score,” she said.
Patricia Price, who teaches English at Rock Bridge High School, said that as a teacher, she feels responsible for failing communication arts scores.
“I just want the public to understand what’s going on and how the statistics are broken down,” she said. “There’s pressure on teachers to improve, but it’s almost impossible under the current conditions.”
Rock Bridge’s Brotzman said he thinks more money should be provided with the higher standards.
“Expectations are much higher,” he said. “If a company wanted higher productivity, they would put in investments for down the road. But we are not seeing much in the way of federal dollars.”
Tom Schlimpert, principal at Lange for five years, said he thinks schools’ responsibilities, which have expanded to include the socioeconomic standing and mental health of kids, go far beyond the origins of the education system.
“We’ve really gotten so far from the three R’s of the original education standards,” he said. “It’s almost a socialist expectation. We’re expected to fix everything.”
Teresa Barry, an eighth-grade math teacher at Oakland Junior High School, thinks that using one test to judge students, teachers and schools is ridiculous. Oakland did not meet requirements in math, with below-target scores from black students, poor students and students with disabilities.
“There is way too much weight on this one test. Oakland has always been reported on for scoring low on tests, but that’s because we have such a diverse population,” Barry said. “If we were measured on our students’ progress after being here, our school would be looked at in a much better way.”
Some teachers say the bureaucratic nature of the No Child Left Behind Act requirements and the MAP creators also cause problems for teachers.
“Noneducators make arbitrary decisions that affect those of us who have been in education for a long time,” Ford said.
Said Price, “Anybody who knows anything about education knows that These tests are written and comprised by people who aren’t teaching in a classroom. I think teachers need to have more say in the process.”
Teachers and administrators are not the only ones complaining about MAP testing.
“If the teachers would calm down, we wouldn’t feel as pressured,” said Lange seventh-grader Jessica Byington.
Brandi Myers, also a seventh-grader at Lange, thinks students have enough assessments to handle without the MAP.
“We do enough tests; they should add up to the MAP,” she said.
Jessica, who will take the test this spring, said Lange’s performance didn’t bother her: “I’m not going to be here next year.”
Where to go from here
Such comments are among many that students, teachers and principals alike have about the MAP. Brotzman, faced with failing scores in both categories, knows there are limitations to what Rock Bridge can do.
“Our abilities to impact special need students scores are somewhat limited,” Brotzman said. “There are going to have to be enrichment programs during the summer and after school — I’m not sure how possible it is to get our subgroups where they need to be during the normal school day.”
Schlimpert sees the No Child Left Behind Act as an opportunity to do positive things.
“We’re trying to improve institutional programming to help kids grow, whether at a first-grade or 12th-grade reading level, it’s about growth,” he said.
Betsy Baker, principal at Parkade, said she knows there are efforts by the state of Missouri to look at the way it categorizes proficiency for 2005-06.
Brotzman said the goal of 100 percent proficiency in 2014 is unrealistic, but he also said he knows positives can come from testing.
“It has caused us to look even harder at our subgroups and look outside the box. We know that incremental improvement is an important notion,” he said.
Barry thinks that although the test does a good job of focusing on minorities, it makes too many subgroups.
“I like how the test makes us all look at minorities, but some subgroups, like special ed and ESL (English as a second language) students, should not be counted. Those students are in those classes for a reason,” Barry said. “It is pointless to try and get those students to perform at the same level as other students, because if they could do that they wouldn’t be in those classes.”
Missourian staff reporter Brian McCauley contributed to this article.