JACKSON — Even before school and district report cards graded “A” to “F” are rolled out for the first time, it’s clear that lawmakers and education officials have a strong appetite for further changes to how schools are graded.
In a hearing yesterday, Mississippi Department of Education officials told lawmakers they expect to examine new ways of grading how much students learn and how high school graduation rates are measured. They also promised that a measure of graduation rates would return, after being omitted from grades to be released next month.
It’s not clear, though, if lawmakers will allow the department to complete changes before they step in next year. A number of lawmakers expressed admiration for Florida’s grading system, discussed by a representative of former Fla. Gov. Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education.
The foundation’s Christy Hovanetz pointed to data showing some test scores in Florida and Mississippi were on a similar track before Florida made changes to its school system. She told Mississippi lawmakers that Florida’s accountability system was a key driver in the improvement.
“People weren’t satisfied any more with how their schools were performing,” Hovanetz said. “I think the catalyst of the rating system really sparked a change in the education culture in Florida.”
House Education Committee chairman John Moore, R-Brandon, said he liked the system Hovanetz described.
“I love the way the system is laid out,” Moore said.
Mississippi’s current system is already in flux. Lawmakers mandated this year that schools be graded from “A” to “F,” not on the old seven-rung system of “Star” to “Failing.” In doing so, they consolidated the lowest three rungs of the old system under the “F” heading. If that system would have been in effect last year, 46 percent of Mississippi districts would have been rated “F.”
But the underlying scoring mechanism remained in place, including some elements that lawmakers criticized yesterday. For example, Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, asked why some schools with relatively low test scores were bumped up to a “C” or “Satisfactory” rating even when none of their schools ranked that high. The provision featured in last year’s charter school debate in the Legislature, with many proponents saying satisfactory-rated districts shouldn’t get to veto charter schools in their area.
“I don’t understand that,” Wiggins said. “That’s hiding the true nature of the school district.”
Paula Vanderford, who leads accountability efforts for the state Department of Education, said that’s because it’s possible for a district to meet test score growth objectives, moving them up one tier, even when individual schools do not. However, she said the department’s rating task force is likely to re-examine whether that scenario should be possible. That could be part of a larger overhaul of how the state accounts for students’ academic growth.
Education officials also defended the state Board of Education’s decision to omit graduation rates from the soon-to-be-released school ratings, promising they would return next year. They said that the graduation measures used were penalizing only the best-performing districts and weren’t counted in ratings for lower performing districts. They also reiterated that there were questions about whether school districts were gaming the measure, for example, by encouraging students not on track for graduation to seek a GED diploma.
“The goal behind the decision was to have a better graduation model,” Vanderford said.
It was clear, though, that lawmakers remained displeased with the decision. Senate Education Committee Chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, said he thought it was likely that lawmakers would change state law next year to make it mandatory that graduation rates be used in school and district ratings.
Interim State Superintendent Lynn House said she wasn’t sure the department’s overhaul would be complete by January. She said she welcomed input by lawmakers, but emphasized that Mississippi has been raising its testing standards and will raise them again when it adopts new assessments based on the Common Core standards that it’s implementing.