Missouri's educational performance has historically matched its geography. We're in the middle, according to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.Â
But, what will it take to be excellent?Â
Missouri education leaders have set a goal to be one of the Top 10 states in the nation by 2020. To that end, they've crafted an evaluation that measures how close or how far away a district is from that aim.Â
To hold schools accountable, they use the Missouri School Improvement Program, called "MSIP 5" because it's the fifth cycle of the state's system for accrediting the public schools, something the state has been doing since the 1990s. However, because it's the first year of the latest cycle, it represents a whole new way of evaluating and setting goals for schools. Â
In previous cycles, parents have been able to find out how their school districts are performing. Now, under MSIP 5, they can learn how their children's own schools are doing.Â
"Hopefully it will empower parents to know what's going on in their neighborhood schools," said Sarah Potter, communications coordinator for DESE.
In the stories below, readers will find analysis of how six area districts - Blair Oaks, Jefferson City, Russellville, Eugene, Southern Boone and Eldon - fared on the annual performance reports DESE released in mid-August.
Blair Oaks R-2 School District earned a 97.1 rating from the system Missouri uses to hold schools accountable, putting them at the top of the heap.Â
Of the 560 "local education agencies" - mostly public school districts - that Department of Elementary and Secondary Education officials examine, 30 performed better than Blair Oaks.
Blair Oaks exceeded the state averages by about 15 percentage points in most tested subjects. So if 54 percent of Missouri's students are doing well in Algebra II, 69 percent of Blair Oaks' students are doing the same.Â
The best areas were in eighth-grade science and third-grade math.
"We're obviously pleased with the results," Superintendent Jim Jones said. "They demonstrate the commitment of our students, parents, faculty, staff and building administrators to meet these lofty expectations. It takes that whole group to meet those goals."
Half of a district's MSIP 5 score - 70 of 140 possible points - is based on how its students perform on Missouri Assessment Program tests.
The report reveals Blair Oaks already has met the state's 2020 target in the academic areas of science and English/language arts. Blair Oaks also has met the targets for attendance, graduation rates, and college and career readiness.
The report shows the district is "on track" to meet the state's targets by 2020 in math and social studies.Â
MSIP 5 evaluates the performance of five "subgroups": blacks, Hispanics, children with disabilities, English language learners and those who qualify for reduced-price meals.
The district is "on track" toward meeting the academic standards for these pupils as well.Â
About 13 percent of Blair Oaks' students were eligible for free- and reduced-price lunches last school year, compared with more than half the students in Jefferson City now.
At the senior high, students did well in science. Almost 86 percent of the students are considered "proficient or advanced" this year, compared with 67.3 percent last year.Â
Jones noted in a district of Blair Oaks' size, it's common to see fluctuations between groups. He couldn't point to any one change or reason to account for the higher science scores.Â
But teachers are getting savvier at using testing data, he noted.Â
"We have the same number of school days we did 20 years ago ... you have to be able to identify strengths as well as weaknesses," he said, in order to carve more room for concepts that need further teaching.Â
Potter added: "That's exactly what they are supposed to do. With testing, we're not trying to put labels on schools. We're trying to give feedback to help schools know where they need to improve."Â
Blair Oaks has two weaker areas.Â
Students who fit into one of the subgroups saw their scores slip in the English/language arts area.
Also, the district didn't see enough progress in social studies to earn all the available points in that area, but standardized test scores did improve between 2012 and 2013. Only high school students take the exam; this year, 66.7 percent of Blair Oaks students are considered "proficient or advanced" in the subject; correspondingly, a third of the district students are likely to be either "basic" or "below basic."Â
Under the federal No Child Left Behind law, schools were aiming for 100 percent of school children to be academically proficient or advanced by 2014, but educators decried the difficulty of reaching that benchmark.
MSIP 5 sets a "goal of 75 percent proficient by the year 2020." But it also includes the academic achievements of the at-risk student subgroups.Â
"We did want them masked by the total population," explained Potter.
"You can't argue against the philosophy of No Child Left Behind," Jones said. "But is it realistic? We want our students to be better today than they were yesterday and better tomorrow than they are today."Â
However, according to DESE, Blair Oaks is doing a good job of readying teens for either the workplace, the military or some form of higher learning. The district earned 98.3 percent of the points in the "college and career ready" category.Â
Jones attributed that, in part, to the "MIT-E Network," an interactive telecommunications education program that allows small schools to offer higher-level courses by working together with the help of a university. (In this case, Central Methodist University.) He said it saves both parents and smaller schools money.
"We have a very good I-TV program where we are able to offer dual-credit, college-level classes," he said.
Jones said he believes the MSIP process is improving education.Â
"Creating a little anxiety is not always a bad thing," he said.
In central Missouri, rural school districts tended to perform better than urban ones on the state's accountability measurements, and Southern Boone County was no exception.Â
The district earned 132.5 out of 140 available points - 94.6 percent - on the state's MSIP 5 assessment.
Superintendent Chris Felmlee said the score could be higher once all the data is examined for filing errors.
The report reveals Southern Boone County already has met the state's 2020 target in science. It also met the 2020 targets for attendance and graduation rates.Â
He wasn't surprised by the science scores.Â
"With No Child Left Behind, the focus has been on math and communication arts. If they (kids) read on grade level, they'll do well in other content areas," he said.
Felmlee said the faculty works hard to stay connected to parents - technology helps - and make kids feel welcome at school.Â
He said: "They recognize the kids, give them a pat on the back and say, "I'm glad you're here today.'"
The report shows the district is "on track" to meet the 2020 targets in English/language arts and mathematics.Â
The district has seen math scores rise recently and Felmlee said the school recently adopted a new series of math materials. "To see gains when you start a new series, that's wonderful," he said.
Like other districts, SoBoCo has work to do on its social studies scores.
Like the other administrators, Felmlee didn't have a ready answer to the problem.
"Anywhere we're seeing declines, we're seeing if the curriculum aligns," he said.
In the "college and career ready" category, the district's achievement is mixed.Â
When it comes to the number of students scoring at or above the state's standard on college-prep tests like the ACT, the district is "approaching" the state target. And the district is "on track" to place an adequate number of teens into colleges, training programs and the military. It also has "met the 2020 target" for the number of students doing well in dual enrollment and advanced placement classes or at acquiring technical skills.
As for those student subgroups who traditionally have been at risk for failure in school, the district is "on track" or "approaching" the state's 2020 target in English/language arts, math and science. But it still has work to do in the area of social studies, where test scores actually have declined since 2011.Â
Between 22 and 25 percent of the children are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches, Felmlee said.
"A lot of schools are seeing kids come through the doors with more needs," he said. "We're not seeing that to the same degree as the bigger cities."Â
In recent years, Southern Boone County teachers have been allotted more time to collaborate with one another. Felmlee believes that leads to better lessons and more coordination between grade levels.
"As a superintendent, my push is to protect and make it more important and ask the community to work with us on this," he said.Â
Felmlee said, traditionally, good teaching has been perceived more as a talent and an art. But he said data analysis is changing the profession.
"Teachers used to say, "If they would just leave me alone and let me teach...' But you don't hear that as often," he said. "Teaching is more science than art, anymore."
In the past five years, Cole County R-1 Schools has turned around from being in the bottom 100 schools in the state academically to breaking into the top 100 schools.
"We have changed the culture within our school through the Professional Learning Communities process and lots of hard work," said Superintendent Jerry Hobbs.
Students and staff have worked hard to meet the new school motto, which came out of the learning communities process: Expecting Excellence.
Cole County R-1 is happy with its 96.4 percent on the MSIP 5 Annual Performance Report.
The Russellville school earned 100 percent of the points possible in academics, attendance and graduation rate areas.
And its outstanding math scores placed the rural school in the top 10 percent. In fact, the Cole County R-1 results were above the state average in every area except high school geometry.
The school adopted a more rigorous math curriculum last year and the geometry teacher was absent for more than a quarter due to a serious accident, Hobbs said.
He is confident student performance in this area will be better at the next end of course exam.
In science last year, the high school teachers adjusted their curriculum to align better with the end of course exams, and they have concentrated on time spent on task skills to maximize instructional time, Hobbs said.
To better prepare students for post-high school pursuits, Russellville has added more I-TV college classes, which have allowed some students to graduate with a lot of college hours already completed.
Attendance is taken seriously. If a student is not in class, the school will call or visit the home, when necessary. The school policy is a student may miss only six days per semester for any reason.
Great students, staff and parents can be attributed with the successful APR scores at Cole County R-5 Schools, said Superintendent Dawna Burrow.
The school district scored a 95 percent rating, achieving 133 out of the 140 points. The school earned 100 percent of the points possible for academic achievement and graduation rate. Its lowest points came in attendance, where it earned 75 percent of the points.
"I believe Cole R-5 ... has a community that takes pride in their school district and their children's education," Burrow said. "That pride comes through in the student respect for school and achievements."
The school will be diligent this year in working with student attendance, she said.
All core subjects will receive strong attention this year, in contrast with previous years where math and English have been the emphasis, Burrow said.
"We are not all created equal; we all have our strengths and weaknesses and that is what makes us all unique," she said. "If we were all perfect at everything, we wouldn't have much diversity in the job market."
Burrow will discuss and seek improvements to the science curriculum with building principals and science faculty. The goal is to always improve, but with the realization that some will always struggle in some academic areas, she said.
As the accountability system has become more difficult, Eugene schools have modified teaching to adhere better to what the state believes are necessary goals for a good education, Burrow said.
Programs are in place to help students toward graduation, including credit recovery.Â
Burrows said Eugene students benefit from the smaller setting where they receive more specific needs.
Likewise, the school has developed several high school courses for college credit, work-study experience and vocational training.
"It takes a village to raise a child, and this village is doing a great job," Burrow said.
Poverty is an issue for the Eldon R-1 Schools, but the district still earned 128.5 of the 140 possible points, or 91.8 percent.Â
More than 65 percent of the students in the Eldon R-1 School District are eligible for reduced-priced lunches, said Eldon Superintendent Matt Davis.
For Eldon, daily attendance was the standard the district struggles with the most. Davis said he doesn't have a plan to change how the district approaches that standard.Â
"We have policies in place, and we'll continue to monitor and evaluate," he said.Â
Like other districts across Mid-Missouri, Eldon's academic performance in social studies was its weakest link. Why?
"That's a good question," Davis responded.Â
The MAP social studies exam - which encompasses American history and government - is administered only at the high school level.
Davis said the history and government class recently has become a course for seniors instead of freshmen. "We have a very small group - about 10 - taking it now. We hope when the whole grade is taking it, we'll do just fine," he said.Â
Eldon also saw a discrepancy in academic performance between its primary and elementary grades. Students in the fourth through six grades performed much better than the lower grades. "But at the lower level, only one grade is tested. At the upper level all three grades are," he said.Â
Davis was pleased that Eldon scored a 91.8 on its annual performance review.Â
"That puts our district scoring in the top 35 percent of schools in the state," he said. "When combined with the fact that we are in the top 30 percent for poverty, it shows that we are doing amazing things to prepare kids for the future."
Like other urbanized districts in Missouri, the Jefferson City schools face many academic challenges.
The district earned 108 out of 140 total points possible - 77.1 percent - on the Missouri School Improvement Program's 2013 annual performance report.
While that might not be the score JCPS leaders hoped to see, the JCPS district is not in danger of becoming unaccredited, Potter said. Schools become provisionally accredited if the percentage of points earned dips below 70 percent; they become unaccredited below 50 percent.Â
Currently in Missouri, 506 districts are fully accredited, 11 are provisionally accredited and three are unaccredited.Â
Urban and rural schools face different challenges in educating students. Without a large commercial tax base, rural schools have trouble finding the money they need to keep school buildings up-to-date. Urban schools generally have a better tax base, but must cope with higher poverty levels.Â
"If you look at the subgroup achievement, it tells part of the story," Potter said.Â
MSIP 5 evaluates the performance of five "subgroups." In Jefferson City, this "super subgroup" earned 8 out of 14 - 57.1 percent - of the available points on their annual performance review. Of the five standards measured, it was the district's weakest one.
"Children from poverty don't come to school with the same experiences as other kids," said David Luther, JCPS assistant to the superintendent. He noted that many low-income parents hold down two jobs.Â
"That's why we're putting so many resources into pre-kindergarten and kindergarten, because we want to make sure when they come to school, they are ready to go," he said.Â
Luther said the district has implemented several new teaching techniques. Some of those strategies include "project-based learning," which emphasizes classroom projects to promote deeper learning, and "formative assessments," which gather more frequent feedback from students.
"We believe they will bear fruit, but they haven't become part of the culture," he said.Â
Luther said the district wants to use testing data more effectively. To that end, school leaders have set a goal in their proposed strategic plan that, by September 2015, every faculty member "will systematically collect and analyze qualitative and quantitative data for use in the decision-making process."Â
"Once we have that in place, we feel our teachers and parents will be able to see why a student is performing the way he or she is," he said.