Education officials give assurances on grad rates

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – State education officials assured legislators recently they do not intend to diminish the importance given graduation rates in measuring a school’s success.
In recent weeks, the nine-member state Board of Education has come under fire for removing the graduation rate from the factors for ranking schools and school districts.
“Is this not lowering the standards?” asked Rep. Randy Boyd, R-Mantachie, during a recent meeting with the House and Senate Education committees and state education officials.
Both the state board and legislators have been studying Mississippi’s public school accreditation system. The recent meeting focused on efforts to make the system more rigorous. Participants also studied legislation passed in 2012 to grade schools on an A, B, C, D and F system instead of the current seven tiers ranging from Star to Failing.
All seem to agree that as the model becomes more rigorous, student achievement will improve. Many also said schools should put an emphasis on improving the achievement level of their poorest-performing students.
Some legislators and others had expressed concern that the board voted to remove graduation rates from the accreditation criteria for this year. But Lynn House, interim state superintendent, said graduation data is still being publicly available and the rates will return as ranking criteria.
State board officials said the issue is that under the current system graduation rates only apply for districts in the top two categories – Star and High Performing.
“It (current system) is unfair to the higher-rated districts,” said House Education Chair John Moore, R-Brandon.
Paula Vanderford, director of the Office of Accreditation in the state Department of Education, said when the current model was put in place there was an agreement that after three years officials would re-evaluate how to include graduation rates in the accreditation model.
She said now a nine-member committee, which includes Corinth Superintendent Lee Childress, is doing that. For the year when that study is being done, she said graduation rates will not be included in the model.
“Our intention is to be sure we have an effective accreditation model – the purpose of which is to improve our schools..,” said Wayne Gann, former Corinth superintendent and current chair of the state Board of Education. “But that system needs to be fair and equitable.”
The issues are not as simple as who graduated and who did not, according to Vanderford and others. Questions include how much credit to give a district for a student who did not earn a traditional diploma but later obtained a GED or a special-needs student who did not receive a diploma but got an occupational diploma or a certificate of attendance.
The intent, state officials said, is to include graduation rates as part of the accreditation model.
Improving the state’s graduation rate has been the focus of numerous groups. The state’s dropout rate in recent years has been near 17 percent and the graduation rate has been about 71 percent.
bobby.harrison@journalinc.com