Cape district has opportunity to improve

Sunday, November 17, 2002

A report in last Sunday's Southeast Missourian about the 48 percent minority enrollment at Jefferson Elementary School and the school's low Missouri Assessment Program test scores outlined a set of circumstances that deserves the attention not just of school administrators and board of education, but the community as well.

The high minority enrollment at Jefferson does not meet the district's own standards that were set when attendance boundaries for the five elementary schools were redrawn in 1999. That issue is addressed in a guest column (below) by Mark Bowles, superintendent of the Cape Girardeau School District.

To date, no satisfactory explanation has been offered by district administrators regarding MAP test results at Jefferson that were lower than the other four elementary schools -- some significantly lower.

To understand the MAP scores and their relevance to the aims of the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary education, it is important to understand the numbers.

MAP tests are given periodically in various subject areas throughout a student's career. For example, third graders who are tested on communication arts are tested again in that area when they are seventh graders and again as 11th graders. The intent is to see how a student is progressing.

(Assessment testing will intensify under the federal education initiative called "No Child Left Behind" and signed into law recently by President Bush. Federal guidelines call for assessment tests on a yearly basis for grades 3 through 8 rather than every four years.)

Results for each area tested under the MAP program are broken out into five categories. Step 1 is the lowest performance level, followed by "progressing," "nearly proficient" (on grade level), "proficient" and "advanced." Missouri guidelines put the most weight on the top two performance levels -- proficient and advanced -- because that's where DESE would like to see most students performing.

Results of the MAP test in the math area, taken last spring, showed only 7 percent of Jefferson's third graders in the top two performance levels. That number was down from 13 percent of the previous year's third graders. Thirty-four percent of the third graders at Blanchard and Clippard elementary schools were in the proficient or advanced levels this year. Results were slightly lower at Alma Schrader Elementary School (29 percent) and Franklin Elementary School (28 percent).

There are any number of factors that can skew test results. One is how many students with learning disabilities take the test. A portion of these students can be excluded under state guidelines. And students in this category can be given special consideration -- including more time to complete the test.

Another factor, say school officials, is the number of students who receive free or reduced-price lunches. A large number of students at Jefferson come from families considered below poverty guidelines. Seventy-eight percent of Jefferson's third-graders were eligible for free and reduced-price lunches this year. But Blanchard had 79 percent who qualified for lunch assistance. Forty-five percent of Blanchard's third graders scored in the top two levels of the science test, but only 8 percent of Jefferson's students performed that well.

Since MAP test scores have become the standard by which the state -- and now the federal -- government assess how well districts are educating their students, it would seem that school boards, administrators, teachers and parents would be interested in finding ways to explain such a wide disparity in scores as those from Jefferson Elementary School.

Test scores, however, are just a part of the way school performance is gauged. Parents of students at Jefferson have high praise for their neighborhood school, regardless of MAP scores and racial makeup. Teachers and administrators at the school take pride in their dedication to the instruction they provide to students. These are points that deserve to be recognized and admired.

But the fact that one school's performance, based on test scores, is so far below other schools in the district has to be cause for concern. These statistics offer opportunities both inside the school and in the community to raise the level of student performance.

There is much at risk. When one school's students are performing on assessment tests at levels significantly lower than those in other schools in the district, it could become the basis of a serious complaint -- especially if the low-performing school also has the highest minority enrollment.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: