The Suspense Isn’t Exactly Killing Me
I guess we should be concerned that the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) is keeping their district accountability system on hold for another couple of years, but does it really matter? Should we be holding our breath with anticipation as DESE fiddles, once again, with the metrics they use to determine whether school districts in the state are accredited?
Let me put it another way: If I told you that last spring, upon DESE’s recommendation, the State Board of Education reinstated fully accredited status to Kansas City Public School District, where 12 percent of students scored at a Proficient level or higher in math and 25 percent did so in English/language arts (ELA), what would be your takeaway? Would you think any more highly of the district knowing that it has DESE’s seal of approval? Or would you think instead that accreditation must not have much to do with how successful the district has been at preparing students to succeed?
DESE doesn’t appear to be very picky about which schools qualify for full accreditation. The Ferguson-Florissant School District, for example, is now fully accredited despite the fact that only 8 percent of students scored Proficient or higher in math, and 20 percent did so in ELA.
On the other hand, DESE seems to be tireless in its quest to perfect its system for evaluating school districts. It changed the test it uses four times in five years—making it difficult if not impossible to compare student test scores from consecutive years. And now, amid all the upheaval caused by the pandemic, it is replacing the Missouri School Improvement Plan (MSIP) 5 with MSIP 6. It’s an awful lot of trouble to go to just to tweak a system that has consistently accredited 99% of Missouri school districts. And that work will take time—nearly a decade will pass before school districts receive a new accreditation update from the state.
None of this is to say that the MSIP 5 shouldn’t be replaced; the Show-Me Institute has repeatedly pointed out its shortcomings. Under that system, districts needed to get at least 70 percent of their possible points to be accredited. However, there were multiple opportunities for “extra credit”—including all of the points for academic growth—and plenty of non-academic points at play. That explains why accreditation has been so easy to come by, and so far removed from the academic success of students.
Under MSIP 6, academic growth is now officially counted in the point total, but academic indicators still only comprise 48 out of 100 points. Districts can now earn points for creating a Continuous School Improvement Plan. They get points for “reflecting upon current practices and data.” They get points for having the “required documentation.” All of which is to say that districts with troublingly low academic performance are still quite likely to be able to get full accreditation.
But here’s the real kicker: DESE is going to go through the laborious calculations of MSIP 6 for each district, and then it’s going to make an accreditation recommendation to the State Board of Education. The recommendation will be based on the Accreditation Score, but also on “previous department MSIP findings” (whatever those are), on financial status, on statutory and regulatory compliance (whatever that involves), and on the employment of an “appropriately certified” superintendent. In other words, we will have State Board meetings like the one earlier this year that reinstated Kansas City Public Schools full accreditation, and the decision will be subjective.
So it doesn’t bother me that it will be a couple of more years before we are officially reminded of how stubbornly DESE and the State Board of Education refuse to face reality. What bothers me is that Missouri’s accountability system, if you can call it that, is heading in the wrong direction. It is becoming less academic, more watered down, and more about the adults in the system rather than the children in the schools.