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Hickman Mills students are growing academically, but leaders worry it won't lead to accreditation

First grade students fill out worksheets at Ingels Elementary School, which recently switched to a year-long model.
Jodi Fortino
KCUR 89.3
First grade students fill out worksheets at Ingels Elementary School, which recently switched to a year-round model.

Leaders in the Hickman Mills School District say the goalposts to reach full accreditation keep moving — and pushing the state's stamp of approval increasingly out of reach.

The Hickman Mills Board of Education held an emergency meeting on a Sunday evening in April to discuss changes that the superintendent said could threaten the district’s decade-long struggle to regain full accreditation from the state of Missouri.

“The state board was about to take action that would have detrimental consequences for our district,” said Superintendent Yaw Obeng. “And it was clearly unfair, the way they were going about it.”

The Hickman Mills School District in south Kansas City was classified as provisionally accredited in 2014, making it one of six Missouri districts without full accreditation. State education officials cited low student performance and financial concerns.

When Kansas City Public Schools finally regained full accreditation in 2022, the Hickman Mills community hoped it would follow.

But Obeng said it feels like Missouri constantly moves the benchmarks Hickman Mills needs to hit for the state’s stamp of approval.

Moving goalposts

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education uses the Missouri School Improvement Program to review and accredit school districts. Districts are scored on academic achievement, student growth, graduation rates and attendance.

At its April 9 meeting, the state board of education announced that starting this year, the state education department will average three years of performance scores, then compare two.

Starting in 2025, schools will need to score twice in the same range — fully accredited, for example, or provisionally accredited — to move up to that level.

The department will also now use college- and career-readiness data from the previous year’s graduates, which education officials said would help them process and release data faster than waiting for information from the current school year.

Under the assessment framework’s latest iteration, more than 100 districts scored within the provisionally accredited or unaccredited range, compared to fewer than 10 in the last system. Missouri education officials said pandemic learning loss and a more stringent evaluation system resulted in lower scores.

In 2018, under the previous version of the test, Hickman Mills scored 77.3%, in range for full accreditation. It dropped to 62.5% on the 2023 annual performance review, within the provisional accreditation range.

Obeng said the district has made progress on academic achievement and graduation rates. The district is in better financial shape, after years of concern. It has also focused on improving its school board — another longtime issue — with training sessions for new members.

Obeng said the district isn’t asking the state department to give them anything.

“We want to demonstrate that we've earned it. We've worked really hard. Our students have worked hard,” Obeng said. “Our parents have worked hard and our teachers have certainly been putting in the work to do that.”

Measuring growth

The state’s latest evaluation system emphasizes student improvement on test scores over time, rather than raw performance.

Collin Hitt, executive director of the PRiME Center, which studies education in Missouri, said Missouri leads the country with how it measures and emphasizes student growth.

“It's a much superior metric, when we're trying to talk about what are schools doing to improve these skills versus where were students when they started the year,” Hitt said.

The PRiME Center released a report this month that evaluated Missouri schools based on growth. Hickman Mills schools showed up in the top 20 for improvement in language arts, math and other categories.

On its latest state performance scores, Hickman Mills performed at or above average for growth in every category but math. But its percentage of students scoring proficient or advanced on state assessments is below average.

Hitt said it penalizes school districts with a large population of low-income students to solely rely on raw performance measures, like test scores or graduation rates. Higher income correlates to higher test scores, but growth scores aren’t correlated to income.

High rates of Hickman Mills School District students change schools at least once during the school year. More than 31% of children in the district’s boundaries live in poverty, nearly double the state’s rate.

“I think we would argue that Missouri, and certainly schools like Hickman Mills and other schools in Kansas City, would be better served by a heavier focus on growth, and a much, much lower emphasis on raw measures of student achievement and attainment,” Hitt said.

Why does accreditation matter?

Dr. Tracy Hinds, deputy commissioner in the state education department’s Division of Learning Services, said the accreditation process lets districts evaluate their performance at the district and building level.

“It gives districts an opportunity to do a deep dive and to identify areas of growth, areas that they are excelling in, and areas that they need to ensure that they have resources and structures in place to support students with their development academically,” Hinds said.

If a school district is provisionally accredited, charter schools can open within its boundaries.

Hitt said accreditation status also communicates a school district’s quality and performance to the public. However, he said it doesn’t reflect individual students’ college readiness.

“Being unaccredited, I think, signals to everybody around, all stakeholders, that things need to improve dramatically,” Hitt said.

Path towards accreditation

Obeng said he wants the state education department to evaluate Hickman Mills under the Alternative Accreditation Framework for Provisionally Accredited Schools, which looks at different metrics. It was created in the wake of pandemic school closures, when the state had less data to work with.

Instead, the state will evaluate all districts moving forward under the updated framework based on three averaged scores. However, Hinds said a district has an opportunity at any point to make a formal request to the board for an evaluation.

Under the new framework, Hickman Mills would need two composite scores in the fully accredited range before it could move up.

Hinds said they feel confident that the latest accreditation system, with the addition of growth, lets districts show how effectively they’re teaching students.

Obeng said he wants Hickman Mills to regain accreditation before the state makes any more changes.

A district spokesperson said in an email to KCUR earlier this month that Hickman Mills “is still pursuing appropriate actions to be reviewed fairly and opposing changes that put many districts at a disadvantage.” That includes school board discussions on next steps including possible legal recourse.

Obeng said he wants Hickman Mills students to graduate from a fully accredited school district.

“We have students who are going off and doing great things and higher education, apprenticeships, workplace and doing all kinds of things,” Obeng said. “They're really intelligent, smart people and they need to feel that it's recognized not just by their families and us, but the authorities.”

More than ever, education lies at the intersection of equity, housing, funding, and other diverse issues facing Kansas City’s students, families and teachers. As KCUR’s education reporter, I’ll break down the policies driving these issues in schools and report what’s happening in our region's classrooms. You can reach me at jodifortino@kcur.org.
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