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Mississippi again moves to rejigger school rating system

A year after a bruising debate over how Mississippi’s schools should be rated, education officials are revisiting their decisions.

State Department of Education officials said Tuesday that technical flaws in the system approved last year must be fixed, or else results will falsely show that Mississippi has fewer high-performing school districts than last year. But the plan would push up the number of F-rated districts that could be subject to state takeover, and that’s causing plenty of heartburn.

Plus, the reset would break a promise from state Superintendent Carey Wright that nothing would change this year and districts would have guaranteed numerical targets to shoot at. Instead, the state would rank districts from top-to-bottom and again assign grades based on a pre-determined curve, meaning 14 percent of districts would get Fs when grades are released in October, no matter what their scores.

“It’s not an accurate measure of performance,” said Nancy Loome of the Parents Campaign, a critic of last year’s decisions. “It’s an arbitrary ranking.”

The state Commission on School Accreditation voted 9-1 for the change Tuesday, but recommended that schools and districts that would have been rated D under the current numbers should be shielded from sanctions if they end up with an F. It’s not clear, though, if Wright will make that recommendation to the state Board of Education when it meets Thursday, or if the board will adopt it.

The most important elements in Mississippi’s A-to-F grading system are tests scores and how many students made progress on tests from the year before. It’s that second measure, called growth, which is causing problems.

Because Mississippi shifted tests two years in a row, calculating whether students did better than before was challenging. Officials said Tuesday that they now believed that last year’s calculations overstated how much test scores grew. Expectations of continued high growth ended up baked into the scoring system adopted in 2016, and when officials ran preliminary grades, it resulted in the projected number of A-rated districts falling from the current 14 to 7. The department’s Alan Burrow said that made no sense, because statewide test scores improved.

“All the other indicators say there should have been an increase in growth because there was an increase in proficiency,” Burrow said.

State testing chief Walt Drane said calculating growth from last year to this year on the same test should solve the problem. So officials want to reset required score levels using the score distribution adopted by the Board of Education last year, where 10 percent of districts got As and 14 percent got Fs. After levels are reset, the board would assign numerical scores to the levels, so schools wouldn’t be graded on a curve next year.

“If we don’t make this change now, school and district grades this year and in the future will not give a true picture of their performance,” Wright said in a statement.

But unlike at the top end, scores at the bottom had improved, and only 12 districts were projected to fail. Under the reset, that number is projected to grow to 22. That’s key, because each of the 19 districts that failed last year would be eligible for a state takeover if they fail again.

Commission members said they sympathized with districts where leaders thought they had improved enough to escape an F-rating.

“Districts have been operating according to a set of expectations and now in the middle, we’re looking at setting another set of expectations,” said commission member Ann Jones.

Freddrick Murray, who leads the currently F-rated Jackson district, said he was reserving judgment, but admitted he was worried about the projected increase in failing districts.

“Going from 12 to 22 is kind of disheartening,” he said.

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