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Good news and bad news on local student performance

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By Keith Williamson
This opinion piece originally appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Headshot of Keith Williamson
Keith Williamson

In August, Missourians learned that student achievement declined significantly across the state from 2021 to 2022 as schools and families continued to grapple with the effects of the pandemic. New data released just before the holidays by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education provides a more detailed look at academic outcomes by district and school. Together with national data from the National Assessment of Education Progress released in October, we have the most complete picture of the impact of the pandemic and which schools are doing the best in recovering.

Most striking in the data is how disproportionately Black students in Missouri fared compared to their peers across the nation. While declines in performance statewide mirrored those nationally, Black children in Missouri lost more ground than Black children in almost every other state. In fourth grade reading proficiency, Black children in Missouri now rank second from the bottom ahead of only Maine. In eighth grade math proficiency, our Black students are fourth from the bottom.

Locally, new state data shows some signs of academic rebounding, particularly in math. Grade-level proficiency is up in math statewide by four percentage points. In St. Louis County, it was a seven points, in St. Louis charter schools, six points, and in St. Louis Public Schools, three points. Results are more mixed in reading, with proficiency declining statewide by two points and, likewise, two points in St. Louis County. Reading performance rose marginally in St. Louis charter schools by one point and in St. Louis Public Schools by two points.

Still, alarming inequities remain. In reading, for example, the relatively few children afforded access to selective admission in St. Louis Public Schools are almost six times more likely to perform on grade level than those assigned to the district’s open enrollment schools. Performance is most dire among Black students. In third grade reading, a critical early milestone for future success, 55% of Black students in St. Louis County scored below basic, the lowest of four levels of performance. In St. Louis Public Schools, that figure is 72%, meaning the vast majority of Black children are still not functionally literate after at least four years of schooling.

Without immediate, ongoing, and comprehensive support to catch up, these students will struggle to access grade-level content as they progress throughout the upper grades of elementary school, falling further behind each year. The consequences of graduating thousands of children as adults without even basic proficiency in reading and math are disastrous for the region and, in my view, an infringement of their civil rights.

Despite these trends, multiple schools across the region are beating the odds and making rapid improvements. A charter public school network, Momentum Academy, and the University City school district, for example, both improved reading proficiency rates for Black students. Kairos Academies, a charter public school network that has been the recent focus of reporting in the Post-Dispatch, saw even larger rates of improvement in reading.

Leadership with high expectations for student learning is key to sustaining improvement, along with the adoption of high-quality curriculum to ensure that all students have access to rigorous, grade-level content, training and support for principals and teachers on implementation, and data-driven focus on continuous improvement. This approach, known as acceleration, is much more effective than remediation, which holds students back and denies them access to the rigors of a grade-level curriculum. These inspiring examples show what’s possible when the focus is on kids, equity, and outcomes.

I hope more education leaders, policymakers and school board members will follow suit and spend their time and energy on the things that matter most to kids and are most relevant to their teachers working to catch them up: high expectations and standards, tools and support to meet them, and accountability for progress each and every year.

Keith Williamson is the chair of The Opportunity Trust Board of Directors.

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