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On a recent Tuesday, a volunteer at Faxon Elementary School in Kansas City prepared to read a book with a child at a small table outside a classroom.
Nearby, two interventionists worked in a classroom divided in half with a temporary barrier. They were helping groups of about five students each improve their math and reading skills.
These are just some examples of how the school has made a concerted effort to improve students’ learning.
It started a few years ago with an emphasis on reading skills. Faxon considered students’ needs in a comprehensive way, bringing in a restorative justice coordinator, starting a food pantry, hiring additional interventionists and inviting community volunteers to work with students.
“We took this reading focus and we went with it, and everything that we did revolved around that no matter what it was,” Principal Kathleen Snipes said.
She considers the reading initiative a success. But whether Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education agrees with her depends on whether it focuses on student growth or simple test scores.
If you just look at test scores, Faxon is failing to help most of its students achieve at grade level.
If you focus on student growth, the school is among the best in the state at teaching English language arts to children from families with low incomes.
In recent years, state assessments of school quality have measured student growth alongside test scores and overall district improvement.
DESE recently highlighted Kansas City Public Schools’ high student growth scores in a presentation recommending the district receive full accreditation from the state for the first time in years.
Some researchers think growth should be even more heavily weighted when it comes to determining which schools are best at serving their students, and DESE’s next evaluation framework will place an even stronger emphasis on growth.
“It’s a more holistic picture of how the student performed and how much they’ve learned over the year,” said Evan Rhinesmith, executive director at Saint Louis University’s PRiME Center, which conducts education research.
“Because achievement levels are just that one point in time. Growth score is taking into account everything that happened between the last time the student took the test.”
Measuring growth vs. measuring achievement
In 2019 — the latest data available because of pandemic-related disruptions to testing — nearly 18% of Faxon students were scoring at proficient or advanced levels on state English and language arts assessments. The others were scoring below grade level.
The proficiency rate was far below the overall state percentage of 47.9%.
Yet, the 18% marked about a 60% percent increase in the percentage of proficient or advanced students since 2012, the earliest DESE data available on an online portal. (Snipes has also been at Faxon for about 10 years.)
Gary Ritter, dean of Saint Louis University’s School of Education, argues that statistics measuring how much students know at a specific point in time have limited value when it comes to assessing school quality.
He said student growth is a better way to measure quality, because it shows what educators are adding to a student’s knowledge, rather than measuring how advanced students are when they arrive at school.
If you graph all Missouri schools based on test scores and family income, a pattern emerges. Students at schools with higher income families tend to score higher on tests.
Ritter thinks that’s an indication that point-in-time test scores are measuring students’ advantages rather than how much schools are teaching them.
Meanwhile, a graph of growth scores compared to student income doesn’t reveal any particular pattern, indicating that it may be measuring which schools are truly effective at helping students advance, no matter where they start.
Ritter said he doesn’t think the public should hold teachers accountable for point-in-time test scores, but “it does seem fair for you to pay attention to the extent that that student grew from the first day of school in late August to the final day of school in late May.”
In a Dec. 3 report, the PRiME Center examined a quarter of the state’s schools — those enrolling the highest percentages of students who qualified for free or reduced-price lunches due to low family income — and found Faxon was among the top 30 elementary schools at promoting growth in reading.
KCPS had nine schools on the top 30 lists for English language arts or math growth scores in elementary schools, more than any other district. Four of those schools appeared on both lists.
Kansas City charter schools and other local districts like Hickman Mills and Independence were also represented on the lists.
How DESE calculates Missouri student growth scores
The report’s conclusions were based on DESE’s own calculations of student growth, which in the past it has factored into assessments of districts but not weighed as heavily as test scores.
For example, districts could earn 100% of the points for English language arts achievement if they had high enough test scores, even with poor growth scores, said Jocelyn Strand, improvement and accountability administrator in DESE’s Office of Quality Schools. But if they had high growth scores and poor test scores, they could only earn up to 75% of the points.
Traditionally, DESE calculated scores for districts based on the percentage of possible points they received in categories like academic achievement, career outcomes, attendance and graduation rates.
Those scores were used to determine districts’ accreditation status, though DESE was moving away from reporting them in 2019 and has put them on hold for the past two years due to pandemic disruptions.
The calculation will change as the department rolls out the newest version of the school evaluation process, but the details aren’t yet final.
In the new plan, “there is a pretty sizable focus on utilizing growth to measure how schools are performing,” Strand said.
That’s a change the Saint Louis University researchers support.
“If we said, ‘You’re a high achieving school district, but actually on average, your kids have been learning less and less each year, they’re just staying in that proficient level,’ I don’t think parents would be very pleased,” said Rhinesmith, the PRiME Center director. “I don’t think teachers would be very pleased with that either.”
To measure growth, DESE determines how much a student is expected to grow in a year based on their past performance and characteristics, then calculates how much they exceeded or fell short of that goal.
DESE then combines students’ growth scores to calculate scores for schools and districts.
Ritter said that in general he would expect a school with a consistent record of high growth to see its test scores improve, but there are exceptions.
If a school sees high student turnover, and the new students it receives are consistently behind grade level, overall scores might not improve much even if the school is doing an above-average job of helping students catch up.
Student challenges include poverty and unstable housing
At Faxon, students often start their education while facing a number of challenges.
The school has about 280 students, but numbers fluctuate frequently. Snipes said new students join at least once a week, while other students leave.
“Our sixth graders that we have, I would say maybe two or three started with us in kindergarten,” she said.
Andrea Holtman, a second grade teacher who has spent all four years of her career at Faxon, said the mobility rate brings diversity to her classroom and it’s exciting to have students from different places and backgrounds.
But it can also be challenging, she said. When a new student arrives, she has to assess where they are academically and connect them with support services like interventionists and specialists in English language learning. She would like to see even more English learning specialists and community involvement in the school.
Students arrive at different academic levels, and more often than not, they’re behind where Snipes would like them to be.
“You look at their background and they’ve been to three, four or five different schools,” she said. “By the time they land here at Faxon, I understand why they are behind.”
Snipes said some students are also dealing with high levels of trauma, including family members who have been murdered, being exposed to drug use, homelessness or abusive households.
Elle Moxley, a public relations coordinator for the district, said even students who come from stable families and don’t have extreme traumas can have daily stresses caused by poverty, such as food insecurity, that can make it difficult to learn.
All of Faxon’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a typical way for schools to estimate family income levels.
The pandemic exacerbated some of the families’ economic stresses as parents lost jobs, while students’ in-person learning was disrupted.
Now that kids are back in classrooms, some are still readjusting to the more structured environment and teachers are working with COVID precautions, Snipes said. But she is happy with progress shown in midyear assessments.
“We’re not on grade level, but we’re making that growth and moving toward that,” she said. “So we’re super excited about that.”