Dropout rates won't factor in Mississippi school ratings

By Jeff Amy/The Associated Press

JACKSON — Mississippi school districts and high schools won’t have to worry about whether this year’s graduation rates will affect state ratings.

The state Board of Education voted 6-1 Friday to drop for one year the requirements that at least 80 percent of students must graduate for schools to earn the top “star” rating, or that at least 75 percent of students must graduate from schools for them to earn the second-highest rank of “high performing.”

Under the state’s new A-to-F grading system, star schools will get A ratings and high performing schools will get Bs.

Mississippi high schools have one of the nation’s lowest graduation rates. One recent measure found that nearly 30 percent of high school students drop out.

Board member Howell Gage of Vicksburg was the only opponent, saying it was wrong to de-emphasize graduation rates.

“It’s going to send the wrong message when it comes to graduation and dropout prevention,” Gage said Thursday during a work session.

Rachel Canter, the executive director of Mississippi First, agreed with Gage. She described the move as “absolutely a step backwards.”

“It is the obligation of a K-12 system that kids graduate from high school prepared for college or career,” said Canter, whose group produces research and seeks changes in the state’s education system. “There’s no reason to beat around the bush on this other than people don’t want to look bad.”

The old system bumped high schools and districts down a ratings tier if they didn’t meet graduation standards. Last year, four of what were then 152 districts won star ratings and 28 were rated high performing. State officials said another 12 districts and 47 high schools were bumped out of one of those two tiers last year for failing to meet graduation standards. Officials were unable to produce a list of those districts and schools late Friday.

Officials had complained that lower-rated schools and districts faced no penalties for low graduation rates — they hurt only those that otherwise were performing well.

“Nobody else got kicked down,” Board of Education member Richard Morrison of Brandon said Friday. An assistant superintendent for Rankin County schools, Morrison sat on the task force of eight district administrators and one teacher that made the recommendation.

Board member Bill Jones of Petal said it was unfair to penalize schools because in Mississippi, students are allowed to quit school when they are 17.

“It’s not their fault,” Jones said Thursday of high schools. “They try very hard to keep these kids in school.”

They also complained that some districts were gaming the system to increase their graduation rates by pushing students who couldn’t pass state subject-area exams to seek a GED diploma instead of coming back for another shot at those exams, which are required for graduation. Districts get partial credit toward graduation rates for GED earners. There are also allegations that some districts are getting parents to falsely claim that they are homeschooling students who are actually dropping out, decreasing the number of dropouts they must count.

“There’s all kinds of things going on across the state and I know because I did them,” board member Wayne Gann, a former Corinth superintendent, said Thursday.

Morrison said the task force wanted to find some way to use graduation rates as part of all school ratings.

“We understand high school graduation rates are important,” Morrison said. “We want to hold all schools accountable for graduation rates, but we wanted to have time to study that this year.”

The board voted Friday to expand the task force’s mission to include a reconsideration of all of the state’s accountability system, including the way it looks at student test score growth as well as what levels schools have to score at to get various ratings.

That could further change a grading system that’s already in transition. If last year’s ratings hold steady, 17 percent of districts would get F grades this fall. That’s because the Legislature decided the three lowest rungs of the current grading system should all get an F grade when it wrote the new grading system. Another 28 percent of districts, those now graded as “academic watch,” would get D grades.