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St. Louis Public Radio: Missouri released new school performance data. Here’s what you need to know about the declines


Missouri released new school performance data. Here’s what you need to know about the declines

March 7, 2023
By Kate Grumke
St. Louis Public Radio

Empty desks sit in a classroom at Hoech Middle School in Breckenr

In light of new statewide performance data, many more Missouri school districts could be on a path toward losing full accreditation if they don’t improve test scores and measures like attendance in the next few years.

Missourians are getting a more detailed picture of how public schools are doing for the first time since the pandemic began in the form of performance data released Tuesday by Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. 

This is also the first time schools are being rated under a new accountability system, so state officials and school leaders are warning against comparing results directly to those of previous years. Still, education officials see room for improvement in the state data.

“While you can't compare the scores to the prior years, you can look at the achievement data,” said DESE Commissioner Margie Vandeven. “These data tell us that students in school year 2021 and 2022 were still not performing to the levels prior to the pandemic.”

Under this new system, more than 100 districts are in the provisionally accredited or unaccredited score range, an increase from fewer than 10 in the last system. But the state won’t use these results to change accreditation status until it factors in data up until the school year that ends in 2024, so districts have two school years to pull scores up.

Education officials say the lower performance scores reflect a mix of pandemic learning loss and a more stringent evaluation system. The state is now emphasizing both performance and how individual students improve over time, said Vandeven.

“So the pressure is there not only to score high at that snapshot in time for their overall proficiency rates, but also to make sure that the individual student is growing at the expected rate,” she added.

One of more than a dozen districts in the St. Louis area that are on the cusp between provisional accreditation and full accreditation in the new system is the Ritenour School District in St. Louis County. Superintendent Chris Kilbride said the district experienced a similar decline the last time the state changed its performance rating system.

“The start of a system is always the floor,” he said. “And so generally, the Ritenour School District, our history is we've only grown from where we start.”

Attendance was one particular challenge in Ritenour’s scores; the district, along with about one in five districts in Missouri, received zero points. Kilbride said because of the pandemic, the district encouraged students and staff to stay at home if they were sick, which he thinks is reflected in the score.

“If a student was symptomatic in any way or if a staff member was symptomatic, then we were very clear, in terms of protecting the community, that students and staff had to be away from school,” Kilbride said.

The new evaluation system puts more emphasis on how students improve on test scores over time, rather than just on raw performance. Some school districts saw positive signs in those growth scores, including the Bayless School District in St. Louis County. Superintendent Amy Ruzicka highlighted growth among students who are learning English in the district, which is a large percentage of the district’s student body.

“We've seen a number of students coming to us with interrupted formal education and very little to no English,” Ruzicka said. “Their starting point is very different from students who've been in the United States their entire life.”

The data is from the 2021-22 school year, when school districts were dealing with the omicron variant of COVID-19. On top of that, the effects of the pandemic were not distributed equally among school districts, said University City School District Superintendent Sharonica Hardin-Bartley.

“COVID-19 disproportionately impacted Black communities,” she said. “We had more families that got sick, and many of them that were severely sick.”

Hardin-Bartley was part of the committee that helped design the new accountability system. Still, she thinks the state should do more to ensure equity. She would like to see more than just a point-in-time assessment, so that, if on the day of a test a student comes to school hungry or dealing with a difficult family issue, they would have other chances to show their abilities.

“Students who are adversely impacted by a lot of societal systems, the lift is just difficult, and it may have nothing to do with their competence, nothing to do with their academic ability, and everything to do with their social emotional status in that moment,” Hardin-Bartley said.

Because this is the first year of a new system and because of that emphasis on growth, many districts see this data as a baseline from which they can improve in the coming years.