The Missouri Board of Education voted Tuesday to avoid using 2021 standardized test results for state and federal accountability. Members still want the state’s K-12 public school students to take statewide tests next year, but they do not want the results to count against schools for funding and accreditation purposes.

Missouri Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven

The move might lower the blood pressure of some teachers and administrators who are overwhelmed enough as it is this school year from COVID-19’s wrath on education and life in general. During Tuesday’s board meeting, Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven said she wants teachers to be able to focus on the fundamentals.

“We want them to be educating our kids and we believe that if they continue to educate the kids to the best of their ability, the scores generally take care of themselves. But we expect to see some differentiation. Who wouldn’t expect to see that,” she asked.

Dr. Vandeven went on to say the state must still continue to maintain high expectations of learning during the pandemic.

“It’s also not very healthy for young adults to give them a diploma or a credential and then have them go into the next phase of life and not really be prepared,” she said. “We have to know that they have acquired certain skills.”

Assistant Commissioner Chris Neale said accountability systems are built around standard metrics and this academic year is anything but standard.

Victor Lenz

“At this point, we know quite a bit about how instruction is being provided but we do not yet have hard data on how students are doing. The anecdotal information that we hear ranges from students doing fairly well to students who are struggling terribly,” said Dr. Neale. “We believe all of this may be true and that student success is very dependent on both the students and local conditions. At this point though, we do not have consistent, comparable, objective, independent data that will provide an accurate picture. Once we do, both state and local leaders can consider how best to respond applying resources to address unfinished learning.”

Board Vice President Victor Lenz of St. Louis said statewide testing will help to take the temperature of academic performance in the midst of COVID-19. Board President Charlie Shields of St. Joseph agreed.

State Board of Education President Charlie Shields

“In my world of health care, if somebody came into our Emergency Department expressing all the symptoms of extreme hypertension and we didn’t put a blood pressure cuff on them, we’d be charged with malpractice. I think we have to understand what’s going on there,” he said. “To say that we’re not going to do assessments – I use that analogy in the medical world but I think this would be educational malpractice if we refused to do this.”

According to the Department, 10 Missouri school districts and 26 charter schools have not yet had students onsite this school year – totaling more than 82,000 kids. Those students are learning remotely.

The schooling method is not everyone’s cup of tea. Online learning can be difficult for some students to pay attention in class – sometimes leading to an increase in lower grades and a decline in attendance. Vandeven said students with special needs, English Language Learners and others are struggling to learn in a virtual environment.

Pamela Westbrooks-Hodge

Pamela Westbrooks-Hodge of Pasadena Hills questioned if the test results will be used against schools in a punitive manner.

“I think that’s especially concerning in cases where public school data is being used to make the case for different types of schools and alternative choices,” she said.

Dr. Tracy Hinds, deputy commissioner of the Division of Learning Services, said using the data as a punitive measure is not the direction the Department is going.

“We are really seeking information. We want to be informed. We need to know the next steps that we need to take,” she said.

Carol Hallquist of Kansas City questioned how the state can ensure accurate testing data is collected.

Carol Hallquist

“Data are only useful if they are accurate. Dr. Mark Bedell, superintendent of Kansas City, told me that the testing he’s done are showing positive results because they don’t have special needs and English Language Learners as part of his base. Going back to Charlie’s example, it seems like you would blood pressure machine on and it’s faulty and the reading would do you no good. So, help me understand how the data will be accurate and useful,” she asked.

Vandeven said it would be unfair to call the information inaccurate.

“I don’t know that the data are faulty. I think they’ll give you an accurate blood pressure reading,” said Vandeven. The thing is, they might be a little bit lower because his diet has been terrible.”

She said the key will be test participation among Missouri’s 900,000 K-12 public school students. If parents do not want their kids to take the test in person, then participation could suffer.

“Right now, the law is 95% participation rates and it’s for that very reason – so that you are comparing sort of apples to apples. If we get 70% in this district and 30% in another, that has to be part of the story and part of the data reporting and understanding what we are seeing,” says Dr. Vandeven.

Lisa Sireno, Standards and Assessment Administrator in the Department’s Office of College and Career Readiness, said the state is coming up with a game plan to test students next year, including possibly moving the test taking to later on in the spring.

“Without systemwide assessment, we cannot build a complete reflection of the impact of the pandemic on student learning. We know that the more students who participate in the assessment, the more useful the resulting data. We are encouraging assessment of as many students as possible and we will report assessment participation rates,” she said.

Another consideration is reducing the length of the test.

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