August 28, 2014

Report cards hold mixed bag for Kansas City area districts

Most area districts are faring well, including the upward-trending Kansas City and Hickman Mills school districts. But the number of students scoring proficient or advanced slipped locally and statewide, and more challenges lie ahead.

New state report cards show most area districts faring well, including the upward-trending Kansas City and Hickman Mills school districts.

Enjoy the moment — even though an overall slip locally and statewide in the number of students scoring proficient or advanced may hint at potential difficulties ahead.

Because from here on out, schools are staring into a scary unknown.

New tests are coming to Missouri next spring and potentially new learning standards that could mean another change in tests — all wrapped in the national struggle over the Common Core State Standards.

Add to that a state ballot issue likely headed before voters in November that, if approved, would require performance-based teacher evaluations and possibly more tests.

It makes for a stormy mix, said Lee’s Summit Superintendent David McGehee.

“We’ve been through transitions before,” he said. “But I don’t think we’ve seen this level of accountability in a time of confusion.”

Kansas has its own storms. Its test scores, which come out later this fall, won’t be published because of problems with hacking operations from foreign countries that at times shut down the online system during testing last spring.

In Missouri, 97 percent of the districts scored at a fully accredited level on the annual performance reports by earning at least 70 percent of their possible points, and slightly more than half improved from a year ago.

Among 32 Kansas City area Missouri districts, 31 earned at least 70 percent and 22 improved from a year ago.

Even the one district below the mark — Kansas City Public Schools — saw cause for celebration in its score of 66.1 percent because it continued a steady rise that earlier this month prompted the state to return the district to provisional accreditation.

The area’s only other provisionally accredited district, Hickman Mills, jumped more than 18 percentage points from a year ago, just crossing the bar at 70.7 percent.

The next largest gain was by North Kansas City, which jumped 13.2 percentage points to 92.1 percent.

Charter schools were also scored, though they are not accredited by the state. Fourteen of 18 charters in Kansas City scored 70 percent or better, and half improved from a year ago.

The results were encouraging, Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro said, especially as schools are navigating changing standards and tests.

The state has been planning for four years for this year’s full implementation of the Missouri Learning Standards, which follow the Common Core State Standards.

“We expected to see some declines,” Nicastro said. “Districts have worked hard to make those transitions gradually.”

The annual performance report score is based 50 percent on test performance and the rest on measures of college and career preparation, attendance and graduation rate.

The new tests created by the Smarter Balanced multistate consortium will cover English language arts and math in grades three through eight, which affect 29 percent of a district’s annual performance report.

The concern, however, is that the new test is aligned to the Common Core State Standards.

“And we all know,” Raytown Superintendent Allan Markley said, “that Common Core is on life support in this state.”

A split legislature last spring compromised on the embattled standards and passed a law that directs the state to convene educator working groups this fall to write new Missouri learning standards.

Common Core supporters expect that they will end up still resembling Common Core. Opponents anticipate the standards will change.

The shifting landscape troubles superintendents who are trying to meet state performance measures that are geared to rise throughout a five-year cycle that began with last year’s reports.

“Our teachers have been working diligently and tirelessly to get these things in line,” Markley said. “But if you’re not aligned (with curriculum matched to the standards in place), you’re going to do poorly.”

Raytown was one of the area districts that saw its performance score fall. Belton was another.

“We believe we can right the ship,” Belton Superintendent Andrew Underwood said.

But he agreed that pressure only promises to mount on all districts.

Nicastro thinks the state probably will have three years of comparable data after this school year to begin to make accreditation designations under the new accountability system.

The state will have to make adjustments with whatever changes come to the standards, she said. Same goes for the teacher evaluation ballot measure and its potential to incur new tests.

“We will continue to provide tools … wherever necessary,” Nicastro said. “Whatever it is, we will work with our districts to address it.”

The hardest task, even as things stand, continues to be getting more students to proficient or advanced levels on state tests.

Statewide, the percentage of students scoring proficient or better fell from 55.7 to 53.5 percent in English language arts and from 53.9 to 53.2 percent in math.

The state recognizes it is hard, particularly in schools that are trying to elevate students who start the year well below grade level. The state gives credit when the schools move students out of the lowest performance levels.

Kansas City and Hickman Mills, some charter schools and other districts achieved annual performance score gains even though their percentages of students scoring proficient or advanced declined.

Superintendents Steve Green in Kansas City and Dennis Carpenter in Hickman Mills know they will have to push more students beyond that proficient threshold.

Both want to be ready to make their cases for full accreditation in 2015.

“I am confident in our ability to improve,” Carpenter said. “But will the state have the capacity to give districts an accurate reflection of their improvement?

“I trust that the state will be able to do that.”

It won’t be easy.

To reach Joe Robertson, call 816-234-4789 or send email to jrobertson@kcstar.com.

For complete local annual performance reports by district and building, click here.

For complete local test score data by district and building, click here.

To see the state’s standards and indicators defined, click here.

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