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Miss. School Grades Out, Gains Questioned

By Annie Gilbertson | Published 14 Sep 2012 06:00am | comments
The removal of graduation rates from grading criteria allowed school districts to improve their grade. Photo by Alamy.

The removal of graduation rates from grading criteria allowed school districts to improve their grade. Photo by Alamy.

JACKSON, Miss. – Report cards are out for Mississippi schools. Just like their students, schools and districts now receive a letter grade indicating how well they did. The release comes at the end of a summer in which lawmakers took a special interest in school accountability and the Mississippi School Board decided to exclude graduation rates in this year’s grading.

The number of A and B school districts went up 36% this year.

Dr. Dennis Bunch is an Education Professor at the University of Mississippi and finds this to be an awe-inspiring statistic, though he’s immediately skeptical.

“Having been a former principal and superintendent, I know just how hard it is to make substantial gains,” he says.

Professor Bunch says these gains don’t reflect a lot of heavy lifting because Mississippi made it easier to become an A or B school. He says that’s because graduation rates were not part of the calculation. More than half of the districts that moved from C to B did so because requirements were removed. Bunch says the state is now evaluating schools with less information.

“In this case, I don’t think they are trying to manipulate things in their favor,” says Bunch. “You are just losing 50% of the data.”

And Bunch asks, if Mississippi is using less data to differentiate the good schools from the bad, how can parents trust letter grade of their child’s school?

Mississippi Board of Education member Richard Morrison says there absolutely needs to be a reliable accountability system – one that evaluates all schools on multiple measures. But Morrison says that’s part of the reason why he recommended removing graduation requirements from the grade calculations earlier this summer. Just after the decision was made July, Morrison told MPB they needed time to examine the issues.

“The conversation was, let’s hold schools accountable, let’s hold students accountable,” says Morrison. “But let’s figure out a way to do it better. Right now there are issues, and there are problems.”

Morrison sat on the state’s Accountability Task Force. He says when they examined the issue of graduation rates; they found that many schools’ numbers were not reliable. Morrison says the Task Force was also concerned that graduation rates were only being factored into the grades of A and B schools. C, D and F schools were just evaluated by test scores.

10 school districts moved up to B because of the decision to remove graduation rates and it’s cousin indicator, the High School Completion Index. Data provided by MDE.

“We wanted to put everybody on a level playing field,” says Morrison. “That we want every level of school to have a graduation component. We did not say that graduation rates were not important.”

The School Board voted to hold schools harmless from these requirements for one year. They vote to finalize that decision Friday. They are also expected to put the final seal of approval on school letter grades for 2012.

The removal of the graduation criteria caught the attention of the state legislature, and sparked a memorable reaction out of Chair of the Senate Education Committee Republican Gray Tollison who said he “went through the roof.” The legislature called the Mississippi Department of Education in to explain the decision, and talked about making it state law to include graduation rates in the calculations.

Republican John Moore, Chairman of the House Education Committee, says he now understands what the Board was facing when they made the decision – unreliable numbers applied inequitably throughout the system – and he’s relaxed his position since being assured the removal is only for one year.

“We’ll wait and see how the new standards come back to us,” he says.  I ask if he is committed to seeing graduation rates back in the grading system.

“Oh, yes,” he says. “The reassurance we are [getting] is that they are going to come back with higher standards.”

While his immediate concerns have been eased, Moore says the fire under the legislature around school accountability has not gone out. He says when the Department of Education defended their decision, it got him questioning why graduation rates were only being used to grade A and B schools in the first place.

“If the bottom schools were being measured by the same evaluation, some of our C and D schools would actually be D and F schools,” says Moore.

Moore says there may be more A and B schools this year, but the Republican majority in the legislature are promising tougher accountability measures down the line. Get ready, he says, to see more Fs on the state report card.

Images

The removal of graduation rates from grading criteria allowed school districts to improve their grade. Photo by Alamy.


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