After five years of Missouri Assessment Program testing, public school districts are finding the state's annual goal of increasing the number of satisfactory students while lifting low-performing children out of the bottom scoring levels is a tough one to maintain.
The 2002 MAP test results released earlier this month by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education show mixed results, according to state officials, with many Southeast Missouri schools hitting plateaus.
Statewide scores indicate definite improvements in reading tests, but significant declines in math and science tests. Local educators say they're waiting for disaggregate scores -- those broken down by specific classrooms and student profiles -- to arrive in October before assessing what happened during spring testing.
MAP scoring is divided into five levels: step 1, progressing, nearing proficient, proficient and advanced. DESE officials say proficient or above is the desired level, and the goal for each year is a 3 percent decrease in the number of students scoring in the three lower levels and a 3 percent increase in the proficient and advanced levels.
Students take different tests while in different grades, so one class can be tracked through graduation.
While the majority of districts in this area are achieving at or above the state average in most test subjects, there was very little increase in proficiency on the 2002 tests.
"After several years of obtaining that 3 percent gain, it gets mathematically more difficult to achieve an increase," said Nell Holcomb superintendent David Fuemmeler.
Fuemmeler said it's possible for school districts to reach the point of doing everything they can to improve scores. Once that's happened, scores may stay the same or bounce back and forth.
Nell Holcomb was one of several districts to hit a plateau. The five-year pattern among local districts seems to be significant gains in proficiency during the first three test years, a major decline in the fourth year and a slight gain the fifth year so that overall, there's very little difference between year one scores and year five scores.
No steady growth
According to DESE spokesman Jim Morris, that pattern isn't limited to Southeast Missouri schools.
"Statewide, we've found that scores can spike up and down from year to year. We haven't seen that steady growth we'd like to see," said Morris.
The same was true this year in the Jackson School District, where educators have seen consistent progress in most test areas in past years, even when state averages have declined.
"If you're a strong district, consistently above state averages, you're going to plateau and may not see those rapid gains," said superintendent Dr. Ron Anderson.
Dr. Rita Fisher, assistant superintendent of personnel and instruction at Jackson, said the one area they're most concerned with is math, where proficiency and advanced scores in both eighth and 10th grades were below the state average.
Morris said the high school math scores were the lowest since the MAP test's beginning, and DESE will be looking for ways to turn them around.
Secondary scores did turn around in at least one area school district. Cape Girardeau high-schoolers were at or above the state average in all of the tests they took in 2002.
On the other hand, Cape Girardeau third graders fell significantly below state averages in all three of their test areas. Fourth graders, tested in math and social studies, also scored below state averages, although the disparity wasn't as great.
Cape Girardeau assistant superintendent Cathy Evans said the decline could be caused by high concentrations of students in those grades who don't typically perform well on standardized tests.
"There were some areas lower than we'd expected, but we're investigating and doing data analysis to find the causes," Evans said. "Overall, I think our high school scores show we're headed in the right direction."
Various subject areas
The MAP test is broken down into six subject areas. Every spring, Missouri's third and seventh graders take the communication arts, reading and science tests; fourth and eighth graders take the social studies and math tests; fifth and ninth graders take the health and P.E. tests; sophomores take the math and science tests; and juniors take the social studies and communication arts tests.
All six subject areas began as voluntary requirements for school districts. In 1998, the math portion of the test became mandatory, followed by communication arts and science in 1999, social studies in 2000 and health P.E. in 2001.
Schools districts are now required to include every student in the testing grades, despite any disabilities or other factors that might influence test scores.
The state mandates that 90 percent of students in each grade must complete the test, but Morris said this year's average was 99 percent.
"That's a positive sign that districts are embracing the challenge of including all students in MAP testing," Morris said. "On the other hand, that may have a negative impact on the overall scores."
Another factor in the low scores may be that students just don't care about MAP testing. It has no impact on grades, scholarships or any other incentive.
Cape Girardeau resident Deborah Kays said her three children, a seventh grader, ninth grader and eleventh grader, are among those students who just don't take an interest in the tests.
"From what my kids have said in the past, it seems most students see MAP test days as a day off from school," Kays said. "All they have to do is go in and put something down. It doesn't really matter what. And that makes me wonder how valid those tests are."
Sikeston School District officials said they noticed the same trend in student interest, and it's something assistant superintendent for curriculum Kathy Boldrey wants to address, she said.
"Improving test scores takes a joint effort on the part of teachers, administration, students and parents," she said. "We all must promote the test, encourage students to do their best and continue to improve our skills as educators to see that all of our students are successful on the MAP."
The stakes are higher as MAP scores have become increasingly important to the livelihood of public schools. Scores can affect state funding and may prevent a school from receiving accreditation if it doesn't meet Missouri's standards.
Because of this, many schools have tailored their curriculum and teaching methods to promote test material. Most schools have implemented special reading programs.
While school officials say they are proud of their efforts to improve MAP scores, they insist they're not simply "teaching to a test." Dr. Sam Duncan, Jackson's director of state and federal programs, said it "teaching how to test."
"MAP causes you to really think about what you're teaching and how you're teaching it," he said. "MAP isn't simple enough for us to teach to it. The design is too sophisticated, and it's intended to be that way so schools aren't teaching to a test."
Picking up the tab
The MAP testing process will only grow more complicated in the next few years as DESE begins meeting the higher standards set forth by the No Child Left Behind Act signed into law this year by President Bush.
Under this new federal policy, schools must test all students in all subject areas in grades 3-11. The new law will mean big changes for the MAP test, currently set up to test only certain grades in certain subjects.
Missouri legislators made major cuts in DESE funding this year that will have a huge impact on the 2003 tests. According to Morris, DESE will only pay for the math and communication arts portions of the test in 2003. School districts have the option of either paying for the science and social studies tests themselves or not administering those tests.
The funding cut will mean an increase of over $5 per student taking the science and social studies tests. For a school the size of Cape Girardeau or Jackson, that will mean more than $10,000 in added costs.
Morris said 423 of Missouri's 524 school districts have already decided to voluntarily give the social studies and science portions of the test next spring. Those districts that don't volunteer won't be penalized when it comes time for accreditation, Morris said.
Local school district administrators say they feel the tests are too important not to pay for them. It's also likely that the funding cut will last only one year, Morris said, and so the tests will become mandatory again for the 2004 MAP tests. For that reason, most districts feel it's better to pay the extra money and not miss a year of valuable testing.
"I feel like our decision to pay for those tests has the best interest of the students at heart. We see MAP as a gauge of how well we're doing and how we make our school better for our students," said Carolyn Pazdera, testing coordinator for the Oran School District.
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