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Schools with low test scores can have high student growth, report finds

Schools with a low percentage of students reaching proficient and advanced levels on Missouri standardized tests are also among the ones that have achieved some of the most student growth, according to a new report published Thursday.

In an effort to better visualize how students grow academically over time, researchers from the Policy Research in Missouri Education (PRiME) Center housed in the Saint Louis University School of Education created an index to show how students are moving toward proficient levels.

The report found that high growth schools are not confined to a single category, and that they include those with already high test scores but also those with as few as 11.1% of students tested scoring proficient or advanced in a subject.

The researchers’ model builds on a Department of Elementary and Secondary Education calculation that determines how much students grew relative to predictions. By averaging previous years’ test scores, the Missouri Growth Model predicts an anticipated score a student is expected to achieve.

Thursday’s report details how PRiME Center researchers translated that score to fit onto a scale that more closely mirrors traditional letter grades in order to be easily understood. Schools with an average growth score of 50 under the state’s model would have an average of 85 under the PRiME model.

A single standardized test score doesn’t show a full picture of how a student progresses from when they entered a classroom at the start of the school year. Instead, it often indicates a student’s advantage through outside resources like family income, said Gary Ritter, the dean of the School of Education at Saint Louis University.

“We want growth to be in the conversation, not stats,” Ritter said. “We think Missouri leaders can learn a lot by paying attention to which schools are making consistent growth.”

PRiME Center researchers translated 2019 growth scores from DESE — which average three years’ worth of test scores and are the most comprehensive data available before the pandemic — and placed those on a new, widened scale. The calculation does not alter the ordering of the scores.

For example, only 27.3% of Froebel Elementary School students in St. Louis who were tested scored proficient or advanced on the 2019 Missouri Assessment Program test for mathematics.

But in the researcher’s model, the school’s growth score was over 100, making it one of six elementary schools to achieve a growth score that high in mathematics.

“This is a school where the data reveal a great deal of student growth,” the report read. “Thus, good things are happening that would not be apparent from a simple review of proficiency rates.”

Schools’ growth scores could exceed 100 under the model, but for the purposes of the report they are capped at 100. 

Thursday’s report highlighted the 20 schools with the highest growth scores among various grade levels and the two subjects of English language arts and math. It also calculated scores for schools based on the performance of a subgroup of historically underserved students that contained those receiving free and reduced-price lunch, Black and Hispanic students, English language learners and students with disabilities.

Schools with the top growth scores in Thursday’s report often varied widely in terms of students’ proficiency levels on state standardized tests.

When looking at the growth of the subgroup of students on math in schools that had both elementary and middle school grade levels, proficiency rates among the top 20 schools ranged from as high as 85.7% to as low as 11.1%.

High growth scores also weren’t neatly confined to other factors. They were spread across schools from the Bootheel to Kansas City to St. Louis and the Northwestern parts of the state. 

They could also be found in schools large and small, and include both traditional public schools and charter schools.

“We found so far that schools that earn high PRiME growth scores really run the gamut,” Ritter said.

Eric Parsons, an associate teaching professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Missouri, has been part of a team of education policy researchers that helped develop Missouri’s Growth Model and has calculated it for nearly a decade since 2013.

Growth scores are included in districts’ annual performance reports that track progress and performance. The annual report cards are one of the determining factors that contribute to a school’s accreditation status, but growth scores are just one factor included in the reports.

“But for a variety of reasons, I think in the traditional [annual performance reports] that DESE has produced and so on, they often kind of get buried,” Parsons said of growth scores. “And so I really like that the PRiME report is taking them and making them front and center.”

Parsons said solely focusing on proficiency rates would produce a much more homogenous list of school. The growth score attempts to control for factors outside a school’s control, such as the amount of available resources, “and say, ‘Okay, given the starting places of where the students are coming in, which schools and districts are moving them further up the distribution,’ and so that’s why you see that diversity,” Parsons said.

Evan Rhinesmith, the director of research and evaluation for the PRiME Center, said he hopes Thursday’s report will push policy makers to understand and value growth, “because that 70% proficiency rate is only worth so much if kids come in at 70% and stay at 70% every single year.”

In a statement Thursday, Mallory McGowin, a spokeswoman for DESE, said the department was pleased to see the attention the PRiME Center report paid to high growth schools.

“It is important to understand that the Missouri growth model levels the playing field across schools, controlling for such things as mobility and demographic factors for both individual students and schools,” McGowin said. “Efforts to make this complex statistical analysis more accessible are important.”

Last month, preliminary statewide test results showed that during the 2020-21 school year that was disrupted by the pandemic, scores declined across nearly all grade levels and subjects tested, with the greatest drop in mathematics.

It’s not yet known how the pandemic may have impacted student growth, like leading to smaller gains in growth. However, Parsons said his team of researchers is currently working on completing its growth year analysis that studies how the pandemic impacted student growth.

PRiME Center researchers plan to publish two additional reports that will highlight school rankings based on the state education department’s nine regions and schools demonstrating high growth of student achievement in the subgroup category.

Downloadable data on individual schools and a tool that allows users to look up their district can be found at www.sluprime.org

This article by Tessa Weinberg is published from The Missouri Independent through a Creative Commons license.

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