Region’s school districts achieve significant gains

Lauren Wood | Daily Journal Brooke Pace works on a quiz in Leigh Stanford's eighth grade Algebra class Wednesday morning at Amory Middle School.

Lauren Wood | Daily Journal
Brooke Pace works on a quiz in Leigh Stanford’s eighth grade Algebra class Wednesday morning at Amory Middle School.

By Chris Kieffer

Daily Journal

Mississippi had a record number of “A” school districts, according to rankings released on Friday by the Mississippi Department of Education.

Eighteen school districts earned the highest rating, a six-fold increase from the three districts who did so last year.

The rankings are based on student performance on state tests taken during the 2012-13 school year. They were determined by Quality of Distribution Index – a formula that measures how well students scored on the test – and by whether students made a year’s worth of growth on those tests. Districts and high schools also were evaluated by their graduation rates.

The Mississippi Board of Education is expected to approve the 2013 accountability results at its meeting today.

Northeast Mississippi also showed tremendous gains on the new rankings. Since the MDE changed its accountability model in 2009, the region had only had one district earn the top ranking – Booneville in 2009.

This year, it had five earn that status. Northeast Mississippi also had 25 of the state’s 109 “A” schools. Last year, it had 12 such schools.

“I don’t think there is a better region in the state for education than the Northeast corner,” said Amory Superintendent Tony Cook. “This region really values education.”

Northeast Mississippi districts to earn that ranking were Amory, Booneville, Corinth, Pontotoc and Oxford.

Schools to do so were: Amory Elementary, Amory Middle, Anderson Elementary (Booneville), Belmont, Booneville Middle/High, Corinth High, Della Davidson Elementary (Oxford), DT Cox Elementary (Pontotoc), Hatley High, Iuka Elementary, Kossuth High, Lafayette High, Lawndale Elementary (Tupelo), Marietta Elementary, New Albany High, New Site High, Oxford Middle, Oxford High, Pine Grove High, Pontotoc Junior High, Rienzi Elementary, Tishomingo County High, Tremont Attendance Center, Tupelo High and West Union Attendance Center.

“This is everyone’s goal,” Cook said of his district’s “A” ranking. “To me, this is bigger than a state championship in football. You don’t get many industries moving in because of state championships, but hopefully you get industries moving in because of a great education system.”

Mississippi also saw the number of “F” districts fall from 20 to 15, the third consecutive year that number fell.

Interim State Superintendent of Education Lynn House said the main factor that contributed to the rise of “A” districts was adding the graduation rate back to the accountability model.

Graduation rate was used from 2009 to 2011 as a threshold for districts to earn the top two rankings. It was not applied at all last year.

This year, the rate was used for all high schools and districts. Two methods were used. One of them added the four-year graduation rate to the QDI, meaning districts could make up for lower test scores with a higher graduation rate, or vice versa.

“Districts have worked diligently at keeping students in schools and helping them to graduate,” House said. “The schools, districts and communities should be commended for their hard work and accomplishments around student achievement.”

The Oxford School District had straight “A”s, with all three of its schools earning the top mark.

“It has always been a goal, and rather than a goal, it is an expectation of our community that we will provide a quality education,” said Oxford Superintendent Brian Harvey. “That is the highest quality available.”

Pontotoc had been the highest scoring district in the region in recent years, and Superintendent Karen Tutor said she was excited to see it break through and earn an “A.”

“It is a great indication that our students are learning and our teachers are teaching,” she said. “We work hard, and we focus on learning. Our goal is to make sure our kids leave us ready to do whatever they want to do next, and like it or not, test scores are the measuring stick.”

Booneville Superintendent Todd English said the honor was important not only to the schools, but also to the community.

“Good schools are the foundation for attracting business and industry to help improve the quality of life for not only the immediate community, but also the surrounding areas,” he said.

Corinth did not receive a ranking last year, its first in the Excellence for All program. In that, schools use an internationally benchmarked curriculum that is different and more rigorous than the state curriculum.

Because of that, students are not being directly prepared for the material on state tests.

However, this year the MDE did rank the three districts in the program – which also includes Clarksdale and Gulfport.

In Corinth, elementary and middle-school students took the regular state tests and were evaluated on those. The high school was ranked based on its 2011 QDI and growth calculations and its 2013 graduation rate.

“We are extremely pleased that we reached an “A” district,” said Corinth Superintendent Lee Childress. “The teachers and administrators in this district have worked extremely hard in all areas, including where we are piloting this new program, and I am pleased they are being recognized for their efforts.”

For the first time, Northeast Mississippi did not have any districts ranked as “F.” Aberdeen and Okolona, which both held that ranking last year improved to “D.”

“We are proud of the fact that we are moving in the right direction, but we are not satisfied by any means,” said Okolona Superintendent Dexter Green.

Because of the state’s switch to Common Core State Standards in 2014, districts will have the option of keeping this year’s ranking for two years. That will allow them to begin focusing on the new standards this year.

However, districts can still use this year’s tests to improve their ratings.

Districts also won’t likely receive a new ranking in 2015, the first year of the new Common Core tests.

chris.kieffer@journalinc.com