Students in the state of Missouri didn't make as much academic progress last year as education leaders hoped they would, according to data gathered by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Two bright spots - biology and geometry - stand out for the academic year.
At the state Board of Education meeting Monday, department staff shared the aggregated results for the 2013 Missouri Assessment Program, commonly called the "MAP" test. Test results for local schools will be made public Friday.
Michael Muenks, coordinator of assessment for DESE, said math scores for the third through fifth grades were "pretty level."
But he noted only 57 percent of the Algebra I students in 2013 were considered "proficient or advanced," compared with almost 60 percent two years earlier. The MAP tests are scored according to four achievement levels: below basic, basic, proficient and advanced.
Algebra II students, on the other hand, enjoyed a small boost in achievement.
But the biggest win was recorded in geometry. In 2011, fewer than half the students who took the exam scored "proficient or advanced." In 2013, that number jumped to nearly three-quarters.
DESE staff attributed the change to a federal waiver which gave the state flexibility from the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) requirements. The waiver allows Missouri to use its own accountability system to identify struggling schools, to direct resources to those schools and to recognize schools achieving exemplary results.
Because of that waiver, students are not taking both their eighth grade exam and the geometry end-of-course exam. Instead, they are only taking one exam. That means that more bright eighth-graders now are taking the end-of-course geometry exam.
"It wasn't a greater number of participants," Muenks explained. "It was a different group of kids."
Communication arts fared a bit better. Students made small improvements in every grade that was tested between the third and eighth grades. English I students saw minor improvements, raising the number of proficient or advanced students from 58.1 to 60.3 percent between 2011 and 2013.
About 65,000 students took the English II exam - which includes a writing prompt - but they did not perform as well as their predecessors. The number of "proficient or advanced" students dropped by more than 5 percent between 2011 and 2013.
But overall the data did not impress Missouri Board of Education president Peter Herschend, who asked: "We've seen no statistical change across three years?"
"We've not gained much in the way of proficient or advanced students across three years," Muenks confirmed, adding that signs of growth are more palpable when five or six years of data are compared.
He noted that seven years ago, only 44 percent of Missouri's third-graders performed acceptably well in the communication arts category; now those scores have been raised to 48.5 percent. "It's statistically significant over time," he said.
Herschend remained unconvinced.
"It's not encouraging to me to see the lack of change over the past three years. We can't get to where we want to go if we don't grow," he said.
The end-of-course exam for biology yielded one encouraging spot. In 2011, more than 60 percent of students were deemed "proficient or advanced" in biology; by 2013 - when 66,000 students took the exam - that number was raised to nearly 75 percent.
Muenks said at first state examiners worried the abnormal growth might have been due to cheating, especially since many educators had complained the test was too rigorous. However he told the board that, upon investigation, cheating didn't appear to be the case.
"We feel comfortable these are the real results," he said.
He attributed the positive improvements to the state's renewed efforts to focus on the "STEM" fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. He also suggested the performance benchmarks established by the state's latest school improvement program played a role.
Results for the field of social studies were mixed.
Students performed better on the Government exam but poorer on the American History exam.
"Why?" asked Herschend. "What's going on?"
Sharon Helwig, DESE assistant commissioner, suggested the state's focus on science pushed other topics aside. "Everyone emphasized science, but now they'll have to look at other subjects," she said.
The testing data also revealed that at-risk groups - such as low-income students, English language learners and minorities - haven't been able to improve much academically, despite the significant resources and interventions schools have put in place to address those students' needs. Combined all together, the at-risk students are considered a "super subgroup" by DESE.
For example, in 2013, 41.6 percent of the "super subgroup" students achieved a "proficient or advanced" score in mathematics, compared with 54.9 percent for all students - a gap of more than 12 percent.
The worst gap - 15 percent - was in social studies.
Improvement is small to negligible, conceded Muenks.
"It's flat," he said. "We've seen little reduction in the gap. We're not going the direction we want to go."
Herschend agreed. He's worried the state will not meet its goal to be ranked one of the Top 10 states by 2020.
"We will never meet the Top 10 by 20 at this rate," he said. "We've got a million kids we've got to do a better job by. The good states are working hard to keep us out of the Top 10. We have to see better results for our kids. We have to."