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It’s perfectly normal, when a teacher returns a test, for students to compare grades to the marks of their peers.

That urge to compare doesn’t just vanish with childhood. The St. Joseph School District did it Wednesday, when the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education released its annual progress reports for school districts across the state.

The verdict: The St. Joseph School District scored third-best in a field of seven districts that SJSD sees most comparable to itself. Its biggest weakness is in attendance, and there’s some work to do in two core content areas: mathematics and science.

By comparison

The SJSD’s field of peer school districts include those that are “most like us,” said SJSD Director of Assessment Dr. Kendra Lau. Specifically, the list includes Independence, North Kansas City, Joplin, Columbia, Raytown and Jefferson City, in addition to SJSD.

At the top of this year’s peer list is the Independence School District. At the bottom is Jefferson City Public Schools. SJSD is third.

Because the field breaks unevenly, third place could be seen as the bottom of the top tier or the top of a second tier. The comparison shows that SJSD is meeting state performance standards better than most of its peer districts.

The rankings are drawn from each district’s total score on the state’s annual performance reports, issued as a measure of school districts’ success in meeting state standards in five categories — academic achievement, subgroup achievement, college-and-career readiness, attendance and graduation rates. Each standard is scored individually and those scores are combined into a total score.

SJSD earned a score of 121 out of 140 points, or 86.4 percent, in its 2017 APR, released Wednesday. (The state expresses APR scores in terms of a percentage, because not every district is subject to the same point-possible total, due to size, for example).

Compared to the statewide average total score of 89.5 percent, SJSD’s total score is just below average.

However, compared to the peer group, SJSD scored closest to the average among districts that also scored below that mark. Within the peer group, only Independence (95 percent) and North Kansas City (93.9 percent) scored above the state average.

The same trend, SJSD scoring at or near the top among its peers, is true for other, individual categories — third place in academic achievement, third place in subgroup achievement, fourth place in college-and-career readiness, tied for first with five other districts in graduation rate.

But the major blemish on the SJSD’s APR is in the final category: attendance, where the district is tied for last among its peers.

The blemish is attendance

The state’s expectation is that 90 percent of students attend school 90 percent of the time. Anything less is considered chronic absence. With a three-year average of just 84.1 percent of students attending school 90 percent of the time, SJSD was awarded just six of the 10 points available in the attendance category of the APR. With little improvement over the last three years, the district missed out on additional points for “progress” that could have boosted its score.

The district is aware of this issue, as evidenced by the Strive for 5 initiative implemented this year. The campaign aims to promote attendance among parents, students and within the community, and sets a goal for students of missing fewer than five days in the school year. Strive for 5 is a multi-year initiative that seeks, ultimately, to eliminate the underlying causes of chronic absenteeism.

So far, the campaign appears effective.

Dr. Chris Hubbuch, SJSD director of secondary education, said this week that high school attendance is up 10.5 percent compared to the end of the ’16-17 school year and middle school attendance is up about 7.5 percent. Districtwide, proportional attendance is at 89.5 percent.

“Had we had that (last year), the APR would have been probably even higher,” Hubbuch said.

Earning the full 10 points for attendance would have boosted the district’s APR to its highest level in four years. Its highest score in that same time frame was an 88.9 percent in 2015, the only year included in the report that SJSD earned more than six points for attendance.

Attendance also has financial implications for the district. Getting attendance to over 90 percent could mean an additional $1 million in state aid, according to SJSD Director of Finance Wesley Metz’s budget message in the district’s 2017-2018 budget.

English, math, science and social studies

The largest component of the APR is the academic achievement category, worth 56 points. Points are calculated in the four core subject areas of English, math, science and social studies from student performances on MAP tests and end-of-course exams. The state utilizes a diversified approach that includes status, progress and growth to produce a comprehensive score in each subject.

English, math and science are all worth a total of 16 points, while social studies is worth 8 points, for the total of 56 points. The district performed best overall in English (16 points) and social studies (8 points) and it struggled in math and science (9 points each).

Over the last four years, the district has regularly earned the full 8 points possible in social studies. In English, its score of 16 represents a 1-point improvement over 2016. Science scores held steady at 9 points and math fell to 9 points this year from 15 points in 2016.

The district noted in a release a 2.7 percent decrease in the percentage of students scoring proficient or advanced in math, as well as a 1.4 percent decrease in the number of students scoring proficient or advanced in English. It noted a 2.1 percent increase in the number of students testing proficient or advanced in science, perhaps a promising sign in the face of lower science scores in the last two years.

SJSD posted solid gains in the subgroup achievement category, which includes minorities, English language learners and students with special needs, among others. Combined, the subgroup achievement and academic achievement categories represent half the points possible on the entire APR.

Across all subject areas, the district earned 10 of 14 points possible in the subgroup achievement category. It saw gains in every subject area except science, which held steady 2 points of 4 points possible. In total, subgroup achievement improved over 2016 by 1.5 APR points.

Zach McNulty can be reached at zach.mcnulty@newspressnow.com.

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