On December 1, 2017, the Missouri State Board of Education went into a closed session and ousted Commissioner Margie Vandeven. Yet that wasn’t the only controversial decision that day. In a unanimous vote, the board decided to classify the Normandy Schools Collaborative as provisionally accredited. That move meant that thousands of students lost the right to transfer to higher performing schools. Now it seems that vote was made without all of the facts.
A recent study in Education Next by Daniel Hamlin and Paul Peterson of Harvard University shows that Missouri’s state assessments have gotten easier. In fact, Missouri was the only state in the nation to decrease the difficulty of state assessments from 2009 to 2017. As recently as 2009, Missouri’s state tests were given a grade of “A” by the publication and were ranked second in the nation, behind only Massachusetts. This meant we set a high bar for achieving proficiency. Since then, we’ve dramatically lowered our standards. Missouri’s assessments now receive a letter grade of “C” and rank us 48th in the nation.
Keep in mind that test scores are a significant component of the score a school district receives on the state’s Annual Performance Report (APR). Normandy has made substantial improvement on the APR. The district scored just 7.1% in 2014. When the state board voted to reaccredit the district, the APR score was 62.5%. That score was just barely above the 60% threshold for provisional accreditation and was the district’s first year scoring in that range. At the time, 8.7 percent of the district’s 8th-graders scored proficient or advanced on the state’s easier assessment.
We shouldn’t dismiss the progress the Normandy Schools Collaborative has made. Under the steady leadership of Superintendent Charles Pearson and the oversight of the state, the district is clearly heading in the right direction. The question is whether the state’s easier assessments may have given the school district the extra 2.5 percentage points on the APR that put the district into the provisional accreditation range. More importantly, would the state board of education still have voted to reaccredit the school district if the members had known some portion of the district’s academic gains were illusory?
We won’t know the answer to that question for some time. Right now, the state board does not have a quorum as the five members who voted to fire the commissioner have been withdrawn. This means the board can take no action on this or any other issue. It also means that students in Normandy and other provisionally accredited school districts will be required to return to their home school districts next year. Students who transferred to Clayton, Kirkwood, and other high-performing school districts will be forced to go back to the schools they sought to escape.
When the vacant state board seats are finally filled and the board reconvenes, they will have a lot of work to catch up on—including hiring a new education commissioner—so it will be easy for the members to overlook the situation in Normandy. That would be an injustice to the students there. At the very least, the board should thoroughly investigate the extent to which easier tests cost them the opportunity for a better education.