New school rating system

By Michaela Morris
Daily Journal

Starting this fall, Mississippi schools will be shooting for the stars instead of a Level 5. Star School will be the top rating instead of a Level 5, and it will be much harder to achieve, under a new accountability system approved by the state Board of Education earlier this month.
“The No. 1 goal of the accountability program is to try to put us on par at the national level,” said New Albany Schools Superintendent Chuck Garrett. “The schools at the top of the scale will be comparable to the top schools nationally.”
The new accountability system, approved earlier this month, will rank schools using state test scores, achievement growth and high school completion index.
“The new system is much fairer to everyone,” said Lee County Schools Superintendent Mike Scott. “But I think it’s going to be difficult to achieve star school status.”
Northeast Mississippi school superintendents said they support the increased expectations.
“An improved measurement system does raise the bar for student achievement in the state,” said Tupelo Public School District Superintendent Randy McCoy.
There had been a disconnect between state and national rankings with about 25 percent of Mississippi schools achieving a Level 5 accreditation, but national testing showing that Mississippi students were behind.
“We need something that is truly reflective of where we are,” said Aberdeen Schools Superintendent George Gilreath, who helped craft the Level 1 to 5 system.
The state education department has been revising the state tests, creating more rigorous tests, requiring greater depth of knowledge. The tests ask students to analyze and apply what they’ve learned, not just give memorized answers.
“It’s not just rote memorization,” Gilreath said.
As a result, 2007 test scores were lower than in previous years.
“It’s going to take several years for different teaching methodologies to catch up to the different standards set on testing,” McCoy said.
New names
Schools and districts will be rated as star school, high performing, successful, academic watch, low performing, at risk of failing, and failing. The state education board changed some of the labels at its March 19 meeting based on public comment.
For example, successful was originally satisfactory.
“They felt it was a better description of what was happening at that level,” said Jean Massey, associate state superintendent of education for the office of accreditation.
The formula for test scores gives schools weighted credit for the percent of students who score at the basic, proficient and advanced levels on state tests. Exceeding academic growth goals will push schools ratings higher; missing growth goals will pull them down.
High schools and districts’ ratings also will factor in the high school completion index, which will track graduation over five years.
Regular diplomas receive the greatest weight on the scale with 300 points. Partial credit is given for students who meet all requirements but graduation tests, receive a GED, occupational diploma, certificate of attendance or are still enrolled. Dropouts subtract 300 points.
To receive the top star school rating, high schools will have to achieve a 230 score on the index or have an 80 percent graduation rate. High performing schools would have to achieve a 200 score or a 75 percent graduation rate.
Although McCoy supports adding high school completion rates to the accountability formula, he said he would have liked to see districts get more credit for students completing high school.
Special education students with cognitive disabilities may be receiving the best possible education from their teachers, but not be able to graduate with a regular diploma.
“I think that may be a little bit unfair … if a child has done all they can do, to only get a hundred points for that child,” McCoy said. “They should be tweaked, but they are driven by federal recommendations.”
Phase-in
The state set cut-off points for the different levels that will be phased in over a four-year period, with standards getting higher each year.
Personally, Garrett said he would have rather the higher levels arrive the first year, when parents and communities are prepared to see schools drop from top levels.
“You could go down in year two with higher scores,” Garrett said.
The board expanded the phase-in period from three to four years based on public comments to make that less likely, Massey said.
The 2009 accountability ratings, which will be released in the fall, will use scores from tests being taken this spring and updated high school completion statistics for students who entered the ninth grade in 2004-2005, Massey said. Most of those students would have graduated in May 2008, but they’re tracked over five years.
“Districts work harder,” Massey said, to help those fifth-year students finish. “They deserve that credit.”
Districts like Tupelo, which is going through a school reorganization in kindergarten through sixth grade, will have their scores realigned so that accountability ratings reflect the new school configuration, Massey said.
Lower elementary schools that don’t include third grade will be accredited, but they won’t receive a rating because students at that school don’t take the MCT2 and there’s no way to gauge academic growth under the accountability system, Massey said.

Michaela Morris/Daily Journal