Lead to Read volunteers read with students April 13 at Phillis Wheatley Elementary School in Kansas City, Missouri.
Lead to Read volunteers read with students April 13 at Phillis Wheatley Elementary School in Kansas City, Missouri. (Chase Castor/The Beacon)

Last month, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education released performance scores for school districts for the first time in years. 

The scores sum up the annual performance reports that DESE puts out most years as part of its Missouri School Improvement Program to evaluate districts and identify areas for improvement. 

This year, the reports were created under a new system. It is so different from previous evaluations that the scores can’t be compared to the last available ones. The new framework — known as MSIP 6 — makes it more difficult for districts to reach the highest point range. But it is now easier to distinguish among districts’ scores. 

During a press conference ahead of the scores’ release, DESE leaders encouraged the public to focus not only on the overall scores, but on the underlying data on which they’re based. 

For those still making decisions about their child’s education for the upcoming school year, the details of a school’s strengths and weaknesses might be more important than its overall ranking. 

Here’s a guide to understanding the scores in Kansas City area districts and finding the data you need to make education decisions. 

Why haven’t we seen scores recently? 

In 2019, DESE released annual performance reports (APRs) but didn’t calculate an overall score for each district or school. 

The department cited a time of “upheaval” as the state worked on a new evaluation system and the desire to focus on the specifics of the data reported rather than ranking and comparing districts. 

In following years, the COVID-19 pandemic brought more unexpected upheaval and canceled standardized tests. The 2020 reports were entirely postponed, while reports without scores were available in 2021. 

The scores released this year, which are labeled as the 2022 scores and cover the 2021-22 school year, fall under a brand new evaluation system — meaning they can’t be compared to previous years’ scores and won’t be used to determine accreditation status this year. 

What is Missouri School Improvement Program 6?

One of the main differences between the previous iteration of the Missouri School Improvement Program and MSIP 6 is a greater focus on students’ academic growth in addition to what is known as achievement “status.” 

To understand the difference, consider a student who enters fourth grade already reading at a fifth grade level but doesn’t improve at all during the school year. 

While that student’s achievement status is acceptable, the school didn’t help them grow. 

Meanwhile, another fourth grader enters reading at a first grade level and progresses to a third grade level by the end of the school year. That student has grown at an exceptional pace, but their achievement status is still subpar. 

In practice, the differences in growth are often more subtle and the calculation is more complicated. DESE predicts how much a student would be expected to improve based on their history and characteristics, then measures whether the student met, exceeded or fell short of that metric. 

As The Beacon previously reported, some academics and educators have argued that growth is a better indicator of school quality than achievement status because it captures how much value the school adds to the student’s learning. 

For instance, schools that struggle to reach high achievement levels due to high student turnover, but do a good job of helping students catch up, get more credit under a system that emphasizes growth. 

While the new scoring framework increases the point value for academic growth, some, including former Kansas City Mayor Sly James, have argued that growth is the most important measure of success and should receive even more weight. 

“Teachers and students in Missouri will never reach their full potential until policymakers change our education accountability system to actually measure what matters: student growth, instead of measuring how well schools do administrative paperwork,” James wrote in an op-ed published in The Kansas City Star.

In addition to academic growth and status, districts also receive points for their graduation rates, outcomes after graduation, percentage of students prepared for the next level of Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate coursework and industry credentials, attendance and offering individual academic and career planning for students. 

Is my school or district getting better or worse? 

That’s an impossible question to answer based on APR scores alone. Not only are scores unavailable between 2018 and 2022, but the 2022 scores can’t be compared to any past scores because they were created under a totally different framework. 

It will be easier to see trends in future years if DESE continues to use the same system. 

It’s also possible to look at individual metrics that are important to you — such as test scores in a specific subject — and compare those across multiple years. 

Where can I find my school’s or district’s APR scores and data? 

You have a few options. One is to follow this link and choose your district or charter school from the drop-down menu at the top. 

You’ll see a visual representation of the scores in various subcategories, some of them compared to the state average. Scroll all the way to the bottom, to the line that says “total,” to get the overall APR percentage score. 

Another option is to use DESE’s data portal

Select “reports and resources,” find the “school performance and accountability” section, and select among the 2022 report and spreadsheet options. 

The summary reports at the top will require you to select a district and/or school, then click “view report.” The overall APR score is at the bottom right of the first chart, with a more detailed breakdown below. 

The Excel summaries will give you a spreadsheet with all districts or schools, with the overall APR score in the rightmost column. 

Documents labeled “supporting” let you see the data used to calculate the scores, while “historical” lets you look up information from past years. 

Is my district going to lose full accreditation? 

DESE won’t use the scores to make accreditation decisions for another two years to give districts time to adjust to the system. 

It’s possible scores will rise as districts adjust to the system, but as things stand many more districts fall below the “accredited” range than when scores were last assigned for 2018. 

Very few districts fell in the completely “unaccredited” score range, but many more are in the provisional range and very few reached the highest range.

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Maria Benevento is the education reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member. Follow her on Twitter @MariaFBenevento.