June 16, 2008

Many Factors Explain Disparity in Rankings

By Melissa Dunson and Joe Hadsall, The Joplin Globe, Mo.

Jun. 15--Emerson and Royal Heights elementary schools in Joplin are only a few miles apart geographically, but a new study concluded they are worlds apart academically.

Royal Heights ranked 30th among more than 2,100 schools statewide while Emerson came in at 1,647, according to "Show Me: The Grades" based on 2007 Missouri Assessment Program (MAP) index scores.

Kathy Brown, parent of a student at Royal Heights, said she was thrilled to hear that her school did so well in the Show-Me Institute's report.

"I'm very proud," Brown said. "It's amazing that Royal Heights is sitting so high on the top of the list."

But Elizabeth Smith, the parent of Emerson Elementary students, said she couldn't believe her school was in the bottom 25 percent.

Smith now lives in the Stapleton Elementary district, but transferred her three daughters back to Emerson after they moved because she said that school is good for her girls. She said the school even let her sit in on a math class so she could help her daughters with homework. And even after one of Smith's daughters entered middle school, she said her fifth-grade teacher from Emerson took the time to provide helpful tips for working with her daughter's attention deficit disorder.

"Everybody (at Emerson) is involved," Smith said. "It's like the whole community is raising the kids."

Other districts had similar issues.

The Pleasant Valley Elementary School in Carthage came in at 164 statewide, but Columbian and Fairview elementaries, which are in that district, scored 1,426 and 1,483 respectively, in the bottom 25th percent.

Angie Besendorfer, Joplin assistant superintendent, said there is no one factor that parents and teachers can point to that explains the disparity. Some issues Besendorfer and other educators identified include:

Schools such as Joplin's Emerson and Carthage's Columbian and Fairview elementaries have higher percentages of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches, an indicator of the socio-economic status of the surrounding neighborhoods.

More than 80 percent of Emerson students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, compared to 54.3 percent at Royal Heights. In Carthage, 68.3 percent of Fairview students are eligible, compared to 42.7 percent for Pleasant Valley.

Of the 159 schools that beat out Joplin in the district ranking, only 12 spent less per student. Joplin spends $6,376.42 per student each school year. The top ranked district in the state, Jefferson C-123, spent $11,216.86 per student in 2007.

The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education calculates that per pupil expenditure by taking a district's final annual expenditure, subtracting any long-term debt payments and capital projects costs and dividing that by the district's annual daily student attendance.

Susan Taber, an assistant superintendent for Carthage R-9, said the percentage of Hispanic students in certain Carthage elementary schools is her best explanation for the disparity in school rankings. Pleasant Valley, has a student population that is more than 90 percent white, but nearly a third of Columbian's students and more than 40 percent of Fairview's students are Hispanic.

Taber said even if a student has only been in the United States a couple of years, and doesn't speak any English, schools are expected to bring those students up to proficiency in one year.

"That's impossible, but those are the results that are used to calculate that MAP index score," Taber said.

Officials with the top ranked district in the local area, Webb City, said teacher turnover could affect the rankings. Webb City elementary schools such as Harry S. Truman, Eugene Field and Carterville placed near the top of the list but other district schools such as Mark Twain Elementary and Webb City's senior and junior high schools are farther down the list.

Webb City R-7 Superintendent Ron Lankford and Renee Goostree, assistant superintendent, attributed the district's success to the number of years the administration and principal staff have worked together. This is the 11th year for some of them to work together. But Goostree also said some of the schools that did not perform as well had more teacher turnover than the rest of the district.

"What's the story behind the data," Goostree said. "Does (the MAP Index score) take into account turnover in staff? You can't look at just the number."

Crystal Flager, parent of a first-grade student at Emerson in Joplin and aunt of a fourth-grader there, said she noticed her school struggling last year. She attributed it to new staff and said her family had never had that experience at Emerson before. Because of that, Flager thinks Emerson's lower ranking could just be a one-time occurrence this year.

The way a district is set up also can affect its rankings, according to Besendorfer. Joplin's elementary and middle schools are organized around a neighborhood concept, rather than having district-wide schools as some communities have.

Monett has one elementary and one middle school in the town, compared to Joplin's 13 elementary schools and three middle schools, which means that in Monett, children from both the high- and low-income neighborhoods go to the same school, averaging scores. But in Joplin, individual schools more closely represent the neighborhood surrounding that school. Besendorfer said not all parts of Joplin have the same socio-economic levels and support system.

Besendorfer also said the Show-Me Institute's ranking includes schools that specialize in certain grades or subgroups. For example, Besendorfer said Carl Junction's primary school serves grades 2 and 3, and only third-grade MAP tests count toward that index score. So that school's ranking was representative of one grade's MAP scores, while other schools had to take into account the average of grades 3 through 6.

"(Emerson's ranking) is not where we're proud of being, but pull out the schools that are paying more per student and all the schools that aren't K-5 or K-6 and let's see how the rankings look," she said.

Brown, of Royal Heights, said if the school's ranking were lower, it would concern her, but not enough to pull her students out of school.

"If the rank was low, I'd keep in touch with the teachers and principals," Brown said. "I'd check homework and grades on a regular basis."

Kim Davis is the mother of two Stapleton students. She said she liked the idea of highlighting schools in this way, but thought the rankings should be more comprehensive.

"Each school should be recognized for its accomplishments," Davis said. "But it should look at the overall picture. It all means something to me."

Besendorfer agrees.

"It's not that we think Emerson doesn't need work, we just also think Royal Heights has a way to go because it still doesn't have 100 percent of its kids at proficiency," she said. "We are working to improve every school."

By Melissa Dunson and Joe Hadsall


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