School ranking formula stays uncertain

news_education_greenBy Chris Kieffer

Daily Journal

TUPELO – This week, Mississippi elementary students will take their state tests.

How the results will be used to grade schools remains uncertain.

That’s because the state still is awaiting approval from the U.S. Department of Education on a new model Mississippi developed to rank its schools and districts. The model will be used this fall to grade schools based on the current school year, but educators do not know what their schools and districts must do to earn an A, a B or any other grade.

Also in question is the state’s plan to freeze the rankings schools and districts received last fall. The idea was to give them more time to prepare for the Common Core State Standards, new guidelines for teaching reading and math that Mississippi will implement next year.

The material students will be tested upon this week – the current state frameworks – is different than the Common Core, so teachers were unable to focus fully on the Common Core as they prepared students for those tests. To alleviate that, the Mississippi Department of Education said last spring results of this year’s tests would be published, but would not impact a district’s grade, unless they improved it. Otherwise, schools and districts would keep the same grade they earned in 2013, and teachers would have an extra year to get ready for the dramatic change.

Now, with tests looming, schools have learned this year’s tests may count after all, if the USDE does not approve the plan to freeze rankings.

USDE approval is needed because of a 2013 state law that requires it. Previously, the state used a different formula to grade its schools than the one it sent to the federal government to measure them under the No Child Left Behind Law. The new state law says it must use the same formula for both state and federal accountability, meaning the USDE now has to approve the state’s new model.

“Having one model simplifies and streamlines the process,” said Oxford Republican Gray Tollison, chair of the Senate Education Committee. Tollison said he believes the new model is more balanced than the previous one.

Wayne Gann, chairman of the State Board of Education, said he is hopeful the freeze of rankings will remain in effect, based on recent conversations between the federal and state education departments. State Superintendent Carey Wright offered to fly to Washington, D.C., with an MDE delegation to explain the state’s position, Gann said, but the federal department said that wasn’t necessary at this point.

“We are hopeful things will work out,” he said.

Mississippi will comply with all of the federal regulations of the waiver it received in 2012 from No Child Left Behind, Gann said. However, he added, it was important to allow districts to begin preparing for Common Core by holding them harmless from lowering their grade on this year’s tests.

“It would not be fair at all to not hold them harmless because they haven’t taught the curriculum being tested,” Gann said. “They taught toward the Common Core Standards, and it does not align to the state curriculum. I think they are wise to do that, so we need to do what we said we would do which is to hold them harmless.”

The basic frameworks of the new model are known. It will examine the percentage of students who are proficient in reading, math and science and the percentage who meet growth in reading and math. Growth of students in the bottom 25 percent in reading and math also will be measured.

The exact formula, as well as the cut scores for each letter grade, have not been finalized, however.

Schools that had been focused on the Common Core, and not the current state frameworks, are now in limbo as state tests loom.

Those include the Booneville and Amory school districts, which each received an A grade last fall from MDE. Since they did not need to improve that ranking, they took advantage of the fact ratings would be frozen and put all of their attention on Common Core.

“A lot of it is frustrating because the MDE is fighting for us, but ultimately it will come down to the federal government, whether it will count or not,” said Booneville Superintendent Todd English.

Both English and Amory Superintendent Tony Cook said they believe their students will be prepared since the Common Core is more rigorous than the existing standards. However, there are gaps between the two, and their teachers have recently gone back and filled those in with the students. That has caused them to lose some momentum they were building in moving to the new Common Core, English said.

“I know our teachers and principals and our kids have done a great job with it,” Cook said. “It just causes a level of frustration when they say it may not be the way they told us it would be.”

Tupelo and Lee County school districts have both used a blended curriculum this year, teaching both the current state frameworks and the new Common Core material. Still, superintendents of each district said the uncertainty of how they would be graded is frustrating.

“We are absolutely not afraid of accountability,” Tupelo Superintendent Gearl Loden said. “The most recent model was 10th best in the nation by EdWeek. What we question is the thinking behind changing the model midstream when we were assured that we would be given two years to digest and prepare to meet the demands of the new model.”

chris.kieffer@journalinc.com