May 11, 2005 - Some Washington Middle School pupils may have gotten an unfair advantage when taking the Missouri Assessment Program tests in April.
The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, or DESE, recently declared invalid the tests of 75 pupils at the school after a Mehlville School District investigation found faults in an employee's administration of the MAP tests.
"I think when test scores are considered to be invalid, unfair practices are usually related to the invalidity of test scores," Superintendent Tim Ricker said in his first interview with the Call in roughly a year. "The test is valid based on whether everybody has a fair shot at taking the test."
"It wasn't administered the same way for all students," Board of Education President Rita Diekemper said May 4.
"The tests are not graded in our school district," she said, saying the test scores weren't fudged. "(The error) was the administration of the test, not the results of the test."
Ricker declined to say exactly what went wrong, citing confidentiality in disciplinary actions, nor would he say if the employee at fault was still with the district.
But in an April 28 letter to parents, Washington Middle School officials said pupils' grades for language and literacy classes would be unavailable for the current school term because a substitute teacher took over roughly two weeks ago, the same time the district began investigating the MAP situation. Seventh-graders took the literacy portion of the MAP test, while eighth-graders at the school took the mathematics test.
"This will not impact your child's grades, grade-point average or semester grade negatively," stated the letter signed by Washington Principal Robert Linderer, Assistant Principal Andrew Loiterstein and Counselor Ann Hinderberger.
The invalidity of the MAP scores won't negatively impact the district, the superintendent said. DESE decided to drop the scores rather than quantify them as failing scores.
Mehlville received 73 points on its 2004 Annual Performance Report issued by DESE, a drop of 27 points from the perfect score of 100 it earned the past two years.
The department issues an APR for each school district in the state, detailing how each district met Missouri School Improvement Plan performance measures and MAP standards.
With stringent accountability mandates such as MAP and the federal No Child Left Behind Act, teachers face more and more pressure to make sure their students perform.
"These tests are important," Ricker said. "We know they're important, but the end does not justify the means. In other words, there's a covenant between teachers that we all agree with as educators that indicates that we're role models and we need to do what's right by the students.
"All of our accountability systems — MAP being one; No Child Left Behind being another — put teachers today in a different light than 10 years ago," he continued. "But again this is about, what our education is about, and again I believe this with all my heart, it's more important for us to know how our students are doing and if they're learning or not learning and progressing over time to help them be prepared for what they want to do after high school. The tests and other instruments provide us with tools to help enhance learning and help students meet their needs and be successful. Ethically and morally and professionally, we have to stick to that, stick to having our eye on the ball of learning.
"The scores are the scores and we will work on the scores and we can always do better on our scores, but the scores are not the end," Ricker said. "The end is learning."
Still, Mehlville must work to improve its test scores and ensure the security and integrity of the tests are maintained in future years.
"We feel that while those test scores are important, it doesn't give us a good enough snapshot to change instruction because we did it in August from the previous year, so it's almost kind of too late," Ricker said of the district's attempts to boost scores.
Instead of changing teaching strategies or curriculum, the district instituted Tungsten Technology, a computer program allowing teachers to track students electronically month by month without having to grade by hand.
"It's a benchmark test so kids get a chance to know how they're doing leading up to the test," Ricker said. "They take it every month. We're just in training for that with teachers and training with students. We're rolling that out.
"We feel that's a better tactic than changing instruction very quickly to get the results that we want," he said. "But that MAP test still is an important test. Sometimes that MAP test is used in eighth grade by students who need qualified scores to look at private or parochial schools. We believe in doing right by the kids, so we'll provide another test or acceptable nature for that endeavor without personally identifying the kids."
On administering the proper testing procedures, Ricker said, "We have to be very sure that we talk about the specifics on what is appropriate and what isn't appropriate.
"Our other teachers are really afraid that they're all going to be painted with the same paint brush and rightfully so," he added. "They know how important this is, but they know they didn't do anything wrong, and we know they didn't do anything wrong. They're going to look back at this time next year when we're getting ready to do the training for the tests of proctors and they're going to say: 'Ooh, we had a problem with this last year.'
"The other thing is the state department has a group of people that go around the state and randomly pick a building and go in and check your test security," Ricker continued. "They're known as the MAP police. Obviously when the MAP people will be doing it next year, since we reported, I mean, I'm sure they're going to be calling and asking — it's the same question you asked — how did you assess your program; how did you reassess your program from last year?"
Mehlville officials will review the district's procedures for administering the tests, looking to smooth any bumps and train teachers so the district avoids a snafu during next year's testing. Still, officials can't guarantee no one will make a poor decision when giving the tests, Ricker said.
"The one thing we can't guarantee though is individuals; good people or bad people make decisions on their own, and that's the way the human body and the human psyche works," he said. "We know that if we do the proper training, we put the test in perspective and learning first vs. the test scores and we do what's right by the kids, then our intention is for teachers to do it right every time. There is a sacred covenant between teachers and students; the whole idea of role modeling and doing what's right and doing no harm. And we expect that."