NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Missouri Education Officials Warn Fewer Students Will Pass New, Harder State Tests

Elle Moxley
KCUR 89.3
Missouri Board of Education members Michael Jones, left, Kimberly Bailey and Peter Herschend listen to a presentation on test scores. Missouri students took new math and English language arts exams in spring 2018.

For months, Missouri education officials warned schools that new math and English language arts tests would be harder and scores would drop.

Now preliminary data from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education suggests those drops are going to be significant. If the State Board of Education accepts the recommendation of Missouri teachers who’ve been working to score the test, only 30 percent of sixth graders who took the English language arts assessment in the spring will be proficient or advanced. In most grades and subjects, fewer than half of students will pass.

“The Kansas City Star will say more than half our third graders are below the level they need to be,” said Carol Hallquist, a former Hallmark executive who was appointed to the state board this summer. “I think we need a very well-done communication plan on how do we explain this in the simplest but truthful terms.”

Missouri has switched assessments four times in five years for mostly political reasons, forcing state education officials to release test scores with a disclaimer that year-over-year comparisons aren’t possible with “apples to oranges” data.

But several state board members acknowledged that such comparisons are inevitable. Kimberly Bailey of Raymore asked what could be done to cushion the blow to school districts that have to answer for low scores on new tests.

“Change is scary,” she said. “But what makes it palatable in my field – ” Bailey is a licensed mental health professional “ – is you slow the process down. It just seems like we have a lot of change all at once. That’s not the fault of DESE – there are a lot of converging factors – but do we need to spread out the impact of change?”

Test scores are used to evaluate the performance of Missouri schools and factor into accreditation decisions. That’s why so many school district administrators are frustrated that they wouldn’t have results for 2017-18 until early next year.

It’s possible scores on the tests could still go up, as the state board has yet to adopt cut scores, which determine the range that makes up each performance category – below basic, basic, proficient and advanced. Only the last two are considered “passing.” The president of the state board, Charlie Shields of St. Joseph, questioned whether it was necessary to set cut scores at all. (Short answer: yes, cut scores are needed to grade the test and comply with federal education requirements, according to a department spokeswoman.)

Meanwhile, the state is also overhauling how it evaluates school districts, which means even more change is on the horizon.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Ryan Delaney contributed to this report.
Elle Moxley covers education for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.

KCUR serves the Kansas City region with essential news and information.
Your donation today keeps local journalism strong.