The St. Joseph School District increased its Missouri Assessment Program proficiency scores over the last 10 years. However, the local scores haven’t increased at the same rate as the state averages.
There were 32.4 percent of district students in the Proficient and Advanced in communication arts in 2002. The state average, covering the 512 school districts in Missouri, was 30.7 for Proficient and Advanced.
For math in 2002, the district’s Proficient and Advanced rate was 23.0 percent. For the state the same year, the percentage was 21.1 percent.
Fast forward to 2012, and the district’s Proficient and Advanced percentage in communication arts was 51.3 percent, with 50.9 percent in mathematics. The Advanced and Proficient percentage at the state level for communications arts was 55.0 percent. In mathematics, it was 54.9 percent.
These percentages no doubt raise questions about the effectiveness of the district. Considering that the state average is weighted down by under-performing districts like Kansas City and Pemiscot County, many might reason the local district percentages should be much higher.
But test scores and percentages don’t tell the whole story. Many variables, like free and reduced lunch counts and an influx of Limited English Proficient (LEP) students, can affect those percentages, said Cheri Patterson, associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction.
“Two things I would want to point out,” she said. “One is that we are kissing the state average. But when you come down to free and reduced lunch counts, we are not kissing the state average. We’re well above it.”
The percentage of local students qualifying for free and reduced lunches in 2012 was 63.0 percent. The state percentage of free and reduced lunches for 2012 was 49.5 percent.
That 63.0 percent free and reduced count is higher than that of the Pemiscot Co-R-III School District, in the impoverished bootheel region of the state. Pemiscot has a free and reduced lunch rate of 44.6 in 2012, according to state statistics.
The percentage of those living below the poverty level in Buchanan County is 14.9 percent, compared to 28.2 percent in Pemiscot, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“I’m telling you, when you look at that free and reduced trend, our teachers are doing one heck of a job. They’re not only keeping up, they are surpassing,” Ms. Patterson said.
The influx of LEP students in the district also affects the proficiency numbers, Ms. Patterson added. In 2002, the district only had 52 LEP students. In 2012, the number was 424.
Children from Mexico, Burma and other countries are expected to be proficient enough to take the MAP test one year after being in the school district. But research says it takes five years for a person to become fluent in the English language, Ms. Patterson noted.
“Before they can count in these scores, they’ve got to get out of below basic, into basic, then to proficient, before they even move these numbers at all,” Ms. Patterson said. “It’s hard with those kids. They literally can’t say ‘I need to go to the bathroom,’ yet they’re supposed to take this test.”
But that’s not saying that all children can’t learn, she added.
The term “Proficient and Advanced” also is misunderstood. Those students deemed Proficient and Advanced are the ones with A and B grades. The C students don’t make the cut. So although a C is not a failing grade, it isn’t considered Proficient and Advanced.
“When we use these numbers, I think they think everybody else is failing. But that’s not true,” she said.
State Rep. Mike Thomson, R-Maryville, was an educator in Northwest Missouri for a number of years. He agreed that you can’t measure a district by test scores alone; there are too many variables.
“Test scores by themselves are really hard to make deductions from,” he said, adding that schools are under a lot of financial stress due to state and other funding cuts, which can hamper their effectiveness.
“Our schools are under a lot of pressure right now, and I think we need to do everything we can to uplift them, to support them and encourage them,” he said.