Drew Givens, 18, senior at Glendale High School, attends class remotely from home during the week of January 24 while school was closed due to COVID-related staffing shortages. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

After 18 months of turmoil — shuttered schools, sudden separations, classrooms at a distance — Missouri finally had fresh information on how well its students were learning during the pandemic.

When the numbers were released, there was a collective sigh from those who pay attention to such things.

The news wasn’t great. Scores from the 2020-21 Missouri Assessment Program dropped across all students, grades and subjects. Math took the biggest hit; nearly two-thirds of students didn’t meet the standard for proficiency in Algebra I.

The state headline: Only 40 percent of Missouri students were proficient in English, math and science. It had been 45 percent before the pandemic.

The local bit: Two-thirds of students weren’t proficient in math and science in Springfield Public Schools. More than half faltered in the English/Language Arts category.

Why care?

The federal and state governments use standardized tests to see if schools, teachers, and students are meeting specific learning goals. The results play a big role in government funding and accreditation. Poorly performing schools can be sanctioned or shut down.

Not great news, no. But it wasn’t just Missouri. Across the nation, student achievement test scores took similar hits in 2021. Missouri education leaders urged everyone not to overreact to the numbers from the tests, commonly known as MAP. Students had taken the tests in the thick of the pandemic in a mish-mash of ways — on-site, virtual and hybrid. 

“Making blanket comparisons to previous years’ scores is a serious misuse of this data,” said state Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven as she unveiled the scores.

These are extraordinary times, Vandeven reminded everyone. “Most aspects of the last school year were not typical.” But the state’s focus was on the future, she said. Things would get better.

That was last September.

In the five months since Vandeven released the 2021 MAP scores, things have not gotten better for Missouri’s public school system.

Hopes for a less COVID-affected school year were dashed early, as the Omicron variant swept through the state, setting new records for infections among students and staff. The Springfield school district stopped in-person classes in mid-January, announced plans to reopen the next week, then reversed course and briefly reverted to virtual learning before returning to in-person classes. Then weather forced a temporary closure. 

Uncertainty became the only certain thing.

Uncertainty and MAP testing

The next scheduled round of grade-level MAP assessment is less than 60 days distant, according to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

“What’s going to happen?” asks Emily Givens, a Springfield mom with three school-age children. There is exhaustion in her voice. 

The latest round of COVID school closures reminds Givens of the dangers of gathering together hundreds of children. But she also believes that remote learning can’t compare to in-person classes. She wants her kids in school.

Polls show she’s not alone. By a 65-35 margin, parents said they’re more concerned about their children falling behind in school than spreading COVID in class.

Who is affected?

Students take the tests that are used to help decide their futures.

Parents use the results to see if teachers are doing a good job educating their kids.

Teachers have to meet learning goals for their students. Test results tell them if they’ve met those goals. Districts examine the results for troubles at the school level.

Troubled schools affect the community. Students who aren’t proficient in English, math, and science have a harder time getting ahead in college and their careers.

But — another twist — Givens worries a new round of MAP tests will put more stress on her children and their teachers, especially after last month’s sudden shutdown. More stress is the last thing Givens needs. 

She relays a story that’s instantly familiar to anyone parenting during the pandemic. Her middle-schooler has had trouble with class, as the unit lessons don’t make sense on the computer. Instead of hands-on assistance, the teacher instructs the student to go back to her computer and re-read the lesson. The student gets upset because she doesn’t get it.

“She can’t learn from a computer,” Givens says. “So her scores will be doo-doo.” And that will mean more frustration. More feeling like everything is out of control.

It might be better to put off the tests, Givens thinks — but they’ve been around for what seems like forever. They’re required, and they give parents like her at least a partial answer to a basic question: Is my kid in a good school?

Some question value of tests during pandemic

Here’s another question: Are MAP tests the best measure of a student, a school or a district, especially when they’re conducted during a pandemic?

One veteran education expert says that’s giving the pandemic too much credit for the reported drop in student achievement.

“Schools and teachers were hurting long before COVID arrived,” says Ray Smith, a former president of the Springfield office of the National Education Association. “COVID just pulled back the veneer.”

Beneath the all’s-well coat, Smith says, is a 30-year history that shows what he says are obvious problems with the MAP test — racial disparities, rigid rules that discourage novel teaching and learning and outsized importance that forces educators to teach to the test.

“Good intentions maybe years ago,” Smith says of the test, “but it’s not an equitable measure, and it’s been used to beat down schools and educators.”

Smith has a point about pre-COVID MAP scores. Springfield’s sub-50 percent proficiency score on English and language arts in 2021 is close to the 2019 and 2018 results. Yes, there was some erosion in achievement numbers. No, COVID is not the only explanation.

“Even before the pandemic, MAP test results were difficult because of the ongoing changes in the test and the testing format,” says Jon Turner. He describes himself as an “optimistic bridge builder” on Twitter. His day job, however, is associate professor of educational leadership at Missouri State University.

“Just in the last six years, the MAP test content changed multiple times, so it was near to impossible to identify trends,” Turner says. “One year does not make a trend, especially during a pandemic.”

Turner acknowledges problems with the MAP test, especially a “general concern about the importance some people place on just a few days of testing during a single week of the school year.”

On standardized tests, “we take them for what they are. We understand this is a one-time assessment” for students, says Nicole Holt, deputy superintendent of academics for Springfield Public Schools. “So I think what parents can anticipate is that assessment will be a tool — one tool — that the district continues to utilize to gauge how our students are performing.”

Most educators agree there’s a need for some system of testing, Turner says. Missouri uses a model that adds other indicators to the MAP scores, “like career and college readiness, graduation rates, and post-graduation results … a balanced approach can be maintained that will include both test results and other academic indicators.”

MAP scores show achievement gaps

Yet the “balanced approach” Turner talks about — and the changes in the MAP test — haven’t altered basic truths about the achievement test that has been a fact of student and parent life since the 1990s.

Disparities in MAP test scores remain. Black students test lower than their white counterparts. Asian students outdo both of those racial groups. Students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches test at half the proficiency rate as their classmates. The poorer the students, data show, the more likely they will underperform on the MAP test.

Here’s a local example of those factors in action.

Kickapoo High School students fared well in the latest MAP scores, besting the state average in all categories. By contrast, Hillcrest High School students tested below the state average in every MAP category.

Hillcrest’s student body is more diverse. Its disciplinary rate is triple that of Kickapoo’s. Its attendance rate is a dozen points lower. A majority of Hillcrest students are on free and reduced-price lunches. One in four changed schools in the past year; the same was true for just one in eight Kickapoo students.

But Hillcrest has a lower student-teacher ratio than Kickapoo. It spends more per student. It has parity with Kickapoo when it comes to experienced staff with advanced degrees. These factors should have helped the school score better.

There are unknown variables to consider, too. The MAP test doesn’t measure how well a student deals with peers, how they collaborate and resolve and how they navigate. It doesn’t reveal if a student was hungry while taking the test. How late she worked the night before. Whether she was couch-surfing at a friend’s house because her parents are going through a divorce.

Dozens of factors, hidden from easy discovery, affect how someone lives and learns. And how well they take tests.

Future of standardized testing in doubt

How much longer they take such tests is a real debate these days. A growing chorus of voices is calling for a re-examination of standardized exams.

Look at the ACT, used by colleges and universities since 1959 to determine whether a student is a good fit for higher education. When the pandemic first hit in 2020, ACT canceled testing days. Students couldn’t take the test in time for the fall semester.

Many university admissions offices waived their ACT requirement and focused on high-school GPA, admissions essays and interviews with applicants. They did the same with the SAT, another forever-mandatory standard for applicants. They found they were able to measure a student’s academic achievements, even without the iconic standardized tests.

Dozens of colleges and universities have since gone test-optional. Drury University is one of them. 

“After researching how standardized test scores impact academic performance and graduation rates, we realized that a student’s academic record is the best predictor,” Drury says on its website. “Furthermore, we recognize that not all students have the same access to the ACT and SAT and wanted to level the playing field for these students.”

That mindset may eventually trickle down to high-school tests like the Missouri Assessment Program. But not by this spring. Teachers are already deep into planning for this year’s MAP test.

Springfield’s school district wants to put standardized testing in a larger context. The results are useful, Holt says, but they’re always a snapshot of what was. Superintendent Grenita Lathan has brought “new and rich ideas” to student assessment, Holt says, including a planned universal screener program, K-12. It’s designed to give teachers and parents real-time feedback on how students are doing at each grade level.

But for now, it’s the Missouri Assessment Program.

How to get involved:

Holt says parents can learn more about this year’s standardized testing through SPS University, a district initiative to engage parents and other community members.

Holt recommends parents attend the next SPS University session on March 29 at Kickapoo High School. It will include information specific to standardized testing.

Date: March 29, 5 to 8 p.m.

Location: Kickapoo High School, 3710 S. Jefferson Ave.

Details: Free child care for ages 4-8. Registration deadline is March 11.

The Springfield R-12 Board of Education typically meets twice per month on Tuesdays at 5:30 p.m. at Kraft Administrative Center, 1359 E. St. Louis St. The district also live streams board meetings via the district’s YouTube channel.

You can read the agendas for upcoming meetings; they’re posted the Saturday before the Tuesday meeting.

You can sign up to speak at a board meeting starting at 8 a.m. the morning before the meeting. You’ll have three minutes to say what’s on your mind.

Be cool. In the words of the district: “Comments must be acceptable for a business and family-friendly environment. Inappropriate language, gestures, or personal attacks will not be tolerated.”

You can write to school board members. Here’s where you’ll find the email link and the names of board members. Your letter will become public record.

For parents not looking forward to the test — and the rest of the school year — some advice from our sources:

Get involved

Charles Taylor

“I would recommend maintaining appropriately consistent communication with their kids and their teachers regarding academic progress and upcoming projects,” says Charles Taylor, a member of the Springfield Board of Education and a professor of communication at Drury University. “I’d also recommend reaching out to teachers via email if or when a parent has specific questions, particularly before issues become problems.”

Educate yourself

Maryam Mohammadkhani

“Reach out to the schools directly at both the classroom and administrative level,” says Maryam Mohammadkhani, a member of the Springfield Board of Education. “Although we may have policies and practices that are not optimal in delivering the utmost in education, the people who are in our buildings are for the most part fantastic. They absolutely love to see parents and caretakers who want to be involved; they want to forge partnerships in education because they know how tough it is and that student achievement is possible when we all work together. It also provides a means to learn about and connect with resources and opportunities for children that families may not be aware of. So, if the counselor doesn’t call you back right away or the teacher seems rushed, it’s not personal — it’s a strained system, and I promise that every SPS employee is thrilled that you are reaching out.”

Hold schools accountable, especially if you feel your voice isn’t being heard

“It’s important for schools to make engagement as efficient as possible,” says Taylor. “Not all parents have equal opportunity to volunteer during the school day, or attend PTA meetings. Creating opportunities to meet and engage parents where they are and when they are available is important. Digital tools are a necessary step in this direction, but not a sufficient one.”

Mohammadkhani: “I think it’s important for folks to get to know their school board members by emailing or calling them, letting them hear opinions, and not be afraid of being critical. Looking at publicly available documents and attending or watching school board meetings can go a long way to getting to know the inner workings of our schools. And just as important is getting to know the school board candidates in order to be an informed voter, and then talking to friends, relatives, neighbors and coworkers, because we all need to understand that public education is the foundation of our community, and that we should all have a collective interest in preserving it.”

Ask questions; listen to the answers you hear

Jon Turner

“I think it’s important that everyone knows they’ve been heard,” Turner says. “One of the most powerful questions, when I was principal, that I’d ask irate parents when they came into the office was, ‘I hear what you’re saying. Now what would you like me to do about it?’ The point is, maybe we don’t need to rehash past faults or slights, we need to be looking forward — to build a bridge.”

Understand that everyone is on edge, especially with the latest COVID spike

“We all need to emphasize showing more grace and flexibility,” says Turner. “Unfortunately, during the pandemic, the ability to see, work with, and talk with each other was greatly limited, which adds to the challenge.”

Turner says he gained newfound respect for the role of parents during the first COVID shutdown in 2020. “When the schools shut down, it was still a real challenge for me to teach my own children while schools were closed,” he recalls. “I’m a professional educator and teaching my own kids at home was almost more stress than I could have imagined. So, when I hear parent frustrations about school closures, I get it.”

Own your role

It’s too easy, Givens says, to blame teachers for declining student achievement scores. “So much of student achievement begins in the home,” Givens says. “I think a lot of parents forget that, especially right now. It’s easier to blame someone else. But that doesn’t solve anything.”

Ron Davis

Ron Davis is a writer and raconteur who lives in Springfield. When he’s not typing he’s usually listening to music and reading about ways to keep cats off the keyboard. Follow him on Twitter @thisisrondavis and on Instagram @rondavis or email him at: rondavis@me.com More by Ron Davis