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BOE makes righ call on testing for 2020-21 but risks accountabillity slippery slope

Missouri students will take statewide MAP and EOC tests this spring, but the results of the tests will not be used for accountability measures like school or district accreditation.

That was the decision of the Missouri Board of Education this week.

It was the correct decision for a year in which education has been upended by the coronavirus pandemic, but it is imperative that we do not let this year’s decision set a dangerous precedent for future years.

The decision came after a lengthy discussion by the board on Tuesday, during which Department of Elementary and Secondary Education staff described the patchwork of educational opportunities that Missouri students have experienced this year:

  • At least 10 percent of Missouri students have not been in a physical classroom since March
  • School systems across the state have had periodic shutdowns or transitions to remote learning resulting in uncertain learning environments for most Missouri students
  • Teachers and students have had to learn new systems and new ways of instructing “on-the-fly”
  • These changes in educational delivery have had a disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable students

As a result, it is impossible to fairly compare student achievement data from this year to other years and it would be unfair to use that data for accountability measures like accreditation.

At the same time, knowing how our students are doing during all of this upheaval is more important than ever and a short-term pause in accountability must not lead to a long-term suspension of consequences for failing schools.

“If somebody came into our emergency department expressing all the symptoms of extreme hypertension and we didn’t put a blood pressure cuff on them we would be charged with malpractice,” said Board President Charlie Shields. “To say that we would not do an assessment, I think this would be educational malpractice if we refuse to do this.”

Starting a slippery slope?

But some board members expressed concerns about how the data from tests this year would be used and proposed ideas that could set up a dangerous slippery slope for future accountability measures in Missouri.

Board Member Mary Schrag asked if the results from the tests could be kept private from the public.

“If some of those schools do not perform as well as would be desired is there a way this information can be kept within the district, possibly within DESE only, but there would not be any public reporting? Some schools have to compete with each other for students.”

Mary Schrag

Missouri BOE Member

Although we can all recognize the uniqueness of this year, that uniqueness underlines the need for testing data to be made public, not hidden from parents and taxpayers. We cannot fix what we do not see. Data from these spring statewide assessments is a powerful tool for spotlighting systemic inequities and helping legislators identify students and schools that need extra support.

Because of the pandemic, Missouri’s overall and K-12 education budgets will be stretched this year by the economic recession and the need for increased spending on student and teacher safety. Publicly available data from state assessments will help lawmakers determine new, effective models for learning and make sure that every dollar spent on education counts.

Board member Pamela Westbrooks-Hodge also wanted to protect poorly performing school districts from the truth that testing data could reveal.

“Will this official data be used in a punitive manner and fall into the hands of folk that may use it against the district? I think that’s especially concerning in cases where public school data is being used to make the case for different types of schools and alternative choices. How do we create a win-win that provides the state the assessment data that it needs but addresses the concerns that we’ve heard from local education areas?”

Pamela Westbrooks-Hodge

Missouri BOE Member

Missouri education leaders should not be concerned about creating a “win-win” for districts. Instead, they should be laser-focused on creating a singular win for Missouri students.

Doing so requires making testing data public and allowing families to use that data to choose the learning environment that most fits the needs of their children.

In a moderate scenario, research models estimate the average student may fall behind in learning by seven months due to COVID-19 school closures. But Black students may fall behind by 10.3 months, Latino students by 9.2 months, and low-income students by more than a year. (McKinsey & Company)

Limiting the way that advocates and state legislators can use the results of statewide assessments, the main source of comparable and consistent data that exposes the inequities in our schools, will disproportionately impact students who are already farthest from opportunity.

Rebuilding the economy and keeping Missouri competitive globally will require the use of statewide assessments to keep expectations for students consistently high while providing us with a reliable measure of what students are learning. Holding all students to a high, comparable, and consistent standard sets them up for success in college, the workforce, and life.

If our state educational leaders try to spin the data to protect struggling districts from viable alternatives like charter schools, virtual education, or ESAs they will be doing our state and our students a major disservice.

Board Member Donald Claycomb argued that parents should not use school test results to choose where to send their children.

“I think data on test scores have always been misused or used in ways that they were not intended to be used. When I hear a real estate agent say ‘well you ought to buy this house over here because this is in a school district that scores a whole lot higher than the other house that you’re looking at’ to me, that’s a real misuse.”

Donald Claycomb

Missouri BOE Member

The reality is that standardized state tests are the only way that families can make informed decisions about a school’s effectiveness in educating their children. Using test results to choose where to live is not a misuse of the data, but rather a right that every Missouri parent should have — knowing whether or not that their tax dollars are funding a school system that is meeting the needs of their children.

Parents are working hard and getting creative to keep their children learning, and once the crisis is over, we need to make sure parents know that kids are staying on track to achieve their goals and that they are sending their children to a school that is meeting their needs.

We should use all the tools at our disposal to understand how students are doing, including consistent assessments along with grades and teacher feedback, because parents deserve to know where their children stand and how to support their learning.

Testing and accountability are more important than ever

The sad truth in Missouri is that because of changes in the state tests and the pandemic we have not had testing results that are comparable on a year-to-year basis for quite some time. As a result, schools that are failing their students have been able to operate “business as usual” without fear of losing their accreditation for over four years.

In those schools, students have spent their entire middle or high school (or most of their elementary) career receiving sub-par learning without any pressure from the state to tell the school that they must do better.

The playing field for disadvantaged students is already uneven; we can’t let the fall-out from this crisis make it worse.

When the pandemic passes we have to get back to a reliable system that holds our schools accountable to their core purpose – giving our children a quality education.

As Commissioner of Education Margie Vandeven told the board this week:

“I’m sure there are many people in the General Assembly that will be asking how did we spend the $3.5 billion they give us in the formula this year. I’m sure local taxpayers will be asking as well.”

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