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Missouri Parents Just Got More School Data But They Might Need A Textbook To Figure It Out

Illustration by David Kovaluk
St. Louis Public Radio
For the first time in half a decade, Missouri students took the same test two years in a row. The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education released scores on Thursday.

Missouri’s school report cards are out, and they don’t look anything like they did last year.

The redesigned Annual Performance Report (APR) does away with the percentile score that the state uses to make accreditation decisions and replaces it with color-coded bar graphs meant to give parents a more detailed look at how their school district or charter school is doing. 

But educators aren’t sure how accessible all that information really is.

“Even for me as superintendent, I’m still looking at this and trying to figure all of this out,” Kansas City Public Schools Superintendent Mark Bedell said. “I think it is going to be difficult to really calculate what an APR is for the common person.”

More useful? 

In years past, 97% of Missouri school districts scored in the accredited range.

So Leslie Kohlmeyer would often tell the parents she works with not to bother looking up APR.

“I never tell parents to look at the APR score. APR isn’t for parents. It’s a report card for the principal,” said Kohlmeyer, who works for Show Me KC Schools, a nonprofit that helps parents navigate school choice within the Kansas City Public Schools boundaries.

Instead, Kohlmeyer told them to look at graduation rates, or how many students passed state tests.

State education officials want parents to look at those measures, too. That's the main reason state education officials say they retooled how APR is reported – to help parents make decisions about their children's education.

“(We) decided that our best course of action for this year would be to provide the data so that you can actually look at how are our kids performing and focus in on the areas that our communities are finding of great value,” Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven said.

Look up your district or school’s Annual Performance Report on the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education website.

This guide explains how to navigate the data portal.

But not everyone is convinced that the new, color-coded report cards are any more useful than the old ones.

“They never gave labels to schools even under the APR system, they only gave them the number. Now the number’s gone, so now what do we know? Now we know even less,” said Susan Pendergrass, an education policy researcher for the libertarian-leaning Show-Me Institute and a long-time critic of Missouri’s school report cards.

But Vandeven defended the changes, saying this gets APR back to its intended purpose.

“Ideally, you would like to see a system that is able to calculate the points earned, and we understand that,” she said, describing the changes as a “temporary shift” that focuses more on student data than the points. “It’s also intended to better inform future policy decisions.”

That’s because more changes to APR are coming. In fact, the state board will meet next week to discuss an overhaul of the state’s accountability system.

That means the system will change again, maybe even next year.

Too many changes

Superintendent Bedell is fed up with changes. Most Missouri educators are – in the past six years, students have taken four different tests. This year was supposed to be the year everything started to stabilize because the test students took in the spring was the same one they took the year before. 

Instead, educators are contending with a redesigned report card that’s so complicated the key takes up a full page. APR is the largest factor in how the state board determines accreditation for school districts, making it critically important for districts like KCPS that are trying to regain full accreditation.

“I will tell you, this does happen,” Bedell said. “A lot of states are moving to different ways of calculating how they hold schools accountable.”

And he actually likes some things about the new report card, like that it focuses more on student growth rather than solely on achievement.

“You want to be able to validate whether people are making a difference. Sometimes proficiency doesn’t tell the full story. If a teacher has a kid that showed up three years behind, but they were able to grow that kid by a year and a half, you get credit for that,” Bedell said.

DESE sent out talking points to school leaders to help explain the report cards’ new look to parents. When parents go to DESE’s public portal and look at their child’s school, they’ll see:

  • The bar graph on the left measures growth, whether individual students made the gains the state would expect year over year. 
  • The bar graph in the middle measures status (another word for achievement), which is a three-year average of how well students in the district scored on state tests. 
  • The bar graph on the right measures progress, or how fast the district is closing the gap between where students are and where the state wants them to be. 

Schools also get graded on attendance, graduation rates and college and career readiness.
Like Bedell, Kansas City Public Schools parent Lisa Gooden liked that the new report cards put the focus on student growth, not test scores. 

“I think seeing it on this linear model and color-coded and left to right, I think that is easier to read than a percentage,” Gooden said.

She didn’t think all of the terminology was intuitive, though. 

Test scores stay flat

Because students took the same test this year as they did last year, it’s possible to say how much students improved on their reading and math proficiency. And the answer is they didn’t.

More than half the students in the state scored below grade-level on state reading and exams for the second straight year. The pass rates were virtually the same – about 49% of students scored in the “proficient” or “advanced” range on the reading test and 42% on the math test.

Science scores won’t be public until next month, and because the state piloted a new social studies exam in the spring, scores won’t be factored in until next year. 

“We … look forward to a stabilized assessment system,” Vandeven said. “We do caution that one data point does not make a trend.”


Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify Leslie Kohlmeyer's comments.

Follow Elle and Ryan on Twitter @ellemoxley and @rpatrickdelaney.

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