Some Mehlville test scores up, but district lags behind peers

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Students in the Summer Acceleration program held in June 2017 at Blades Elementary in Oakville learn how to make slime.

By Gloria Lloyd
Staff Reporter
news3@callnewspapers.com

The Mehlville School District improved some of its state test scores this year, but it continues to lag behind other area districts at key grade levels and subjects despite an emphasis last year on improving test scores.
Mehlville improved its math scores across several grades, but scores dropped in fifth grade.
It’s this “slow and steady” progress in elementary test scores that Superintendent Chris Gaines said he hopes to continue to see after restoring resources like reading coaches in years in which the district did not seem to focus as much on test scores.
From 2008 to 2014, Mehlville’s scores dropped relative to the state average, coinciding with a series of budget cuts that disproportionately hit the elementary level, Gaines said.
“If it took that long to fall, can you recover in a year or two?” Gaines said. “It took a long time to get into the hole. It’s going to take us awhile to dig out.”
The district is using longitudinal data to inform how it approaches teaching and curriculum for the first time in a long time, if ever, Gaines said. Many years, it’s difficult to compare scores from the Missouri Assessment Program because the test changes so often. The current test has only been in use last year and this year and will be replaced by another test next year.
To make up for that gap, the district started giving its own benchmarking tests this year, testing students at the beginning of the year and each quarter to see how they’ve improved. Scores for each school will be linked from that school’s website on a dashboard system for the public to see.
All principals will address the school board this year about their benchmarking scores and why they are or aren’t improving.
“Some would ask if there’d been a focus on academics in the past,” Gaines said. “And I think at least the administrators are feeling like we are definitely focusing more on that. That’s our measurement, and not other pieces.”
Last year was the first the district had reading coaches, textbooks and professional development restored or added with funds from the November 2015 tax-rate increase, Proposition R. For years, budget cuts had hit the elementary level.
“I think the overall change is positive — the trend had been negative, but the trend has reversed and we’ve bent the curve upward,” Gaines said. “But it was several years of declining scores and several years of declining resources, so I don’t think that was all going to be made up at once. So we’re looking for slow and steady improvement.”
But no matter what test the state gives, one thing has been consistent for the last several years: Mehlville has performed behind districts like Bayless and Hancock Place and far behind Lindbergh Schools.
This year, Mehlville’s overall percentage of students scoring proficient or advanced on the math test is nearly 30 percentage points below Lindbergh.
Overall math scores went down from 46.8 percent scoring proficient or advanced to 44.8 percent, below the state average of 47.1. However, those percentages increased in five of the six elementary grades, in all grades but fifth. Middle school scores showed a slight decrease. In overall points on the scoring index, the district scored 15 out of 16 on math due to good growth in scores of the same students year on year, compared to 12 out of 16 last year.
In comparison, Lindbergh scored 73.5, Fox scored 60.3, Affton scored 46, Bayless scored 45.3 and Hancock Place scored 49.9.
Mehlville typically posts higher scores at the high-school level, but this year the state threw out scores from the Algebra I test and the English 2 end-of-course exam due to errors on the tests.
Opinions of the district’s staunchest backers vary widely on whether Mehlville is improving or getting worse.
With the high-school scores taken out, board member Larry Felton said he believes the district “created space between ourselves and the state average over the last two years, and this year was even better.”
But strictly using the academic scores, former board President Venki Palamand came to the opposite conclusion for math and reading. He believes that the district dropped compared to the state average this year.
Looking at all individual scores, Gaines said the district scored higher than state average more than it did last year.
“If you look grade level by grade level what the scores are and what they are relative to state average, almost all the math scores went up across all measures,” he said.
Other districts have long been undertaking initiatives that Mehlville is just now starting, including Gaines’ emphasis on what he calls “core instruction” and continuous improvement.
The district changed curriculum and training “on a dime” last year after an outcry by the board about math scores, board Secretary Lisa Dorsey noted at the Nov. 15 meeting where this year’s scores were presented.
Unlike that tense meeting, the district was “very excited” about the scores this year, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum Tina Plummer told the board.
“These scores, we were not above the state average, however as you can tell by the points we earned, we’re improving,” she said.
Asked by the board why the scores went up, Plummer said the district focused intensely on it starting last year, making changes in training and programming, rewriting curriculum at middle school and now at elementary, and giving more support to teachers. Teachers and administrators are currently undergoing professional development on the eight mathematical practices, a different way of teaching math.
But pressed by board member Kevin Schartner on whether everything the district is doing this year will get it to the state average on every score next year, Plummer made no promises.
“That’s a lofty goal in that amount of time,” she said.
The district was disappointed in its scores from children in what the state calls “subgroups” — students who are black, Hispanic, on free or reduced lunches, in special education or learning English. The district earned only seven out of 14 possible points in subgroups.
To better reach those students, Plummer said the district has a group currently collaborating with English Language Learner teachers and Special School District teachers to come up with a plan. At a time when the district is emphasizing STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics – science scores dropped slightly.
Social-studies scores also dropped, but the sample size of test takers is so small that not much can be taken from that, district officials say.