When MAP tests were given at South Middle School last April, I was apprehensive about the results. After all, this was the first time since I taught at Diamond that students in my classrooms were being tested in communication arts.
Under the requirements of "No Child Left Behind," students must be tested each year from third through eighth grade in math and reading.
Under the structure that is set up at South, tests are administered by teachers in their regular classrooms (no giant gathering in the cafeteria like they did one year when I went to Triway Junior High). A handful of teachers are assigned to provide breaks for the classroom teachers and some teachers, including me, went from classroom to classroom while the tests were being given.
That gave me the opportunity to see how the students were doing, though I was not allowed to offer any help or advice. What I saw was every student completely filling out the area provided for essay answers. None of them were offering one or two-sentence responses. The answers made sense, and though I saw a few words that were not spelled properly and an occasional mistake in capitalization or punctuation, I was not alarmed because state officials had told schools that those would not weigh heavily in the grading of the tests and there were not that many anyway.
I had a feeling of confidence when the tests ended. My students had done themselves proud with their effort, and I thought with their results, on the MAP tests.
So, I was in a state of shock when the results came out last week and showed Joplin R-8 middle school students, at least sixth and eighth graders, behind the state averages on the communication arts tests.
I immediately started examining and reexamining everything I was doing in the classroom, and I am sure the other Joplin eighth grade teachers were doing the same. At the same time, I had to wonder just what was happening. Joplin R-8 middle school communication arts teachers have worked hard to develop curriculum designed to help students succeed on these tests. Nearly all middle school teachers, including me, have attended seminars on six-trait writing, the system that has been implemented in the Joplin R-8 schools, and I could tell from its use in my classroom last year, the first year it was fully implemented, that student writing, which has always been done well at South, was stepping up to the next level. And it was not just in my classroom; all eighth grade teachers at South stress writing in their classrooms.
These test scores did not reflect the evidence of my own eyes as I glanced at those test papers in April and they did not go along with the work I was seeing at the classroom level.
I will readily admit it. I was in a state of depression about these results. How could I have failed these kids like that? This was as good a group of students as I had taught in my first seven years in the classroom.
Then I started looking at scores from other area schools and most of them were right around Joplin. I took no satisfaction from that. I don't settle for being in the same ballpark as other school districts, I want the students at my school to be at the top, a sentiment I am sure any teacher can understand.
Joplin's score of students reaching the proficient level (those scoring on the top two levels of the test) was 41.7 percent. Scores from Joplin-area schools I checked ranged from 50.2 at Webb City and 47.4 at my old high school, East Newton, at the top end of the scale to 25.8 at Sarcoxie and 28.5 at Golden City at the bottom.
As I was examining the test scores on the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education website, I happened across Willard's score, one I checked out because that is the school system where my nieces attend though neither is in eighth grade. Willard had a 54.3.
At that point, I checked the Springfield schools...56.6...and I wondered if a pattern was beginning to emerge. I kept checking...Republic 44.6, Nixa 59.0, Strafford 53.6, Ozark 45.2, Fair Grove 50.6, Clever 51.3, Ash Grove 47.1.
I looked back at the scores for this part of the state:
Joplin 41.7, Webb City 50.3, Seneca 45.2, Neosho 41.0, McDonald County 35.2, Lamar 41.7, Jasper 36.5, East Newton 47.4, Carl Junction 42.6, Carthage 37.0, Sarcoxie 25.8, Pierce City 32.4.
What are the odds of six of the nine Springfield-area schools I checked having higher scores than the top school district in the Joplin area? What are the odds of the bottom school on that list scoring almost 20 percentage points above the bottom score in the Joplin area?
The top five schools in the Springfield area averaged 54.9, while the top five schools in the Joplin area averaged 45.4, 9.5 percent lower.
Undoubtedly, grading systems were applied differently in these two areas and who knows how they were handled elsewhere?
The fact that Joplin High School students did well on the tests encourages me that I haven't been a total failure, whereas the seventh grade scores at South this year would indicate our sixth grade teachers have also been doing a good job, but as you will see later in this post, the same problems exist between Joplin-area and Springfield-area schools at the seventh grade level.
Obviously, my major interest was in scores for eighth grade communication arts, but the same pattern repeats itself for seventh grade scores. Using the same schools as a basis for comparison:
Springfield area- Ash Grove 56.2, Clever 36.9, Fair Grove 63.3, Nixa 58.8, Ozark 48.0, Republic 58.8, Springfield 57.6, Strafford 48.9, Willard 51.7
Joplin area- Carl Junction 48.3, Carthage 37.8, Diamond 37.1, East Newton 38.3, Golden City 41.4, Jasper 36.4, Joplin 49.8, Lamar 51.0, Liberal 34.4, McDonald County 34.0, Neosho 52.4, Pierce City 38.8, Sarcoxie 29.7, Seneca 43.3, Webb City 46.7.
Five of the nine Springfield-area schools finished above Neosho's 52.4, which was the top score in this region.
Clever had the lowest score, 36.9, for the Springfield area, which still enabled it to beat four schools in the Joplin area and finish in the same ballpark as four others.
The top five scores in the Springfield area averaged 58.4; the top five in the Joplin area averaged 49.8, a difference of 8.6 percentage points.
So I am left not quite sure what to think about the MAP scores. Obviously, there is room for improvement and I guarantee you Joplin middle school teachers, administrators, and students will work hard to bring scores up. Hopefully, the state department will also hold up its end of the bargain. Something is wrong with the test grading, perhaps across the entire state, but definitely in southwest Missouri. Maybe Springfield-area scores were artificially high; maybe the ones in the Joplin-area were artificially low, but when the stakes are this high, you would think state officials would have checked it out before releasing the data.
Perhaps they didn't even notice.