MAP scores have significant consequences

Saturday, September 6, 2003

Officials at Southeast Missouri's school districts were quick to take exception when the Missouri Assessment Program test scores came out this week and showed some unwanted trends.

Ten local schools joined 1,023 others across the state in failing to make the required adequate yearly progress in math and communication arts.

A certain percentage of all types of students must score proficient or higher for the school to be considered making adequate yearly progress under President Bush's sweeping No Child Left Behind law, which Congress passed last year.

Instead of showing a state ready to meet the challenge, Missouri's results disclosed a wide achievement gap between white and minority students, generally low performance in communication arts and decreasing scores among junior high and high school students.

National accountability

This marks the first year there has been nationwide accountability for how public schools perform, and performance is being measured using approved standardized state tests already in place.

The groundbreaking aspect of No Child Left Behind is what stymied Missouri's schools the most: All subgroups of students must improve by 10 percent yearly to meet the federal requirement.

They don't have to advance as quickly as students who traditionally perform well on standardized tests -- white students who are in the middle class or higher socio-economically -- but black students, Hispanic students, students on the free and reduced lunch program and learning-disabled students all have to move ahead at a predetermined pace.

Of course, many individuals in these groups shine. But, in general, measuring them with standardized tests has been a long-standing problem.

Local administrators point out that it was those subgroups that cost them the necessary "met" status on the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education's spreadsheet of the scores, released Tuesday.

For example, Dr. Rita Fisher, Jackson's assistant superintendent who oversees most curriculum issues, said, "These scores are not about the success of a school. They're about how a certain population of students performed on one test. It's such a small sampling of the overall picture."

That's true.

But predominantly middle-class, white public schools have had a history of averaging these students' scores in with everyone else's.

The end result? If enough traditionally high-performing students do well on the test, the problem disappears on paper. Meanwhile, teachers do the best they can with historically low-performing students until graduation day.

In recent years, Missouri has, on its own, started breaking out scores from subgroups. Still, schools weren't penalized if these students didn't perform as well as others. There merely were admonitions to work harder with minority students and poor students, but no carrot-and-stick method of rewarding or penalizing districts based on how they do.

Transfer option

Now there is. If a school does not make adequate yearly progress in either math or communication arts two years in a row, school administrators will be forced to devise a state-approved plan for improving instruction. At that point, parents will have the option of transferring their children from the failing school to another school within the district.

Once they're listed as in need of improvement, schools must meet adequate yearly progress standards two years in a row before they return to normal status.

The magic year under No Child Left Behind is 2014, when all schools must have all students scoring at proficient or higher on the annual assessments.

Is this a realistic goal? Will a mentally challenged student who can't read score proficiently by then? Probably not.

But while the law is in place as written, educators would do better to turn their attention to low-achieving students and take them to the next level instead of raging against a law that isn't going anywhere -- for the time being -- and carries serious consequences.

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