Some schools excel in revamped rankings

One Northeast Mississippi school district and two high schools reached the stars under the state’s new school accountability model.
Booneville School District was one of only two school districts in the state to reach the top Star District designation under the new model, which considers state test scores, academic growth and high school graduation.
The new model is designed to measure Mississippi’s students against national standards.
“The old plan we had measured Mississippi kids against other Mississippi kids,” state Mississippi Interim Superintendent John Jordan. “What we finally decided was that the old system was not truly measuring to a standard that is national.”
Booneville High School and Corinth High School were among only 34 schools who reached the Star School designation, which means they are performing well above national averages, according to state education officials.
The new model gives rankings to the state’s districts and to schools that had fourth-grade and above.
The new ratings are Star, High Performing, Successful, Academic Watch, Low Performing, At Risk of Failing and Failing and can’t be compared to the old system. The labels are different and the tests and curriculum are far more challenging.
“It really is a major shift,” Jordan said.
To meet the Star ranking, the schools and districts had to score at the top of state standardized tests, have high rates of high school graduation or completion and meet state goals for student growth. High Performing schools also have to meet graduation goals.
District rankings were calculated by aggregating all of the district’s students into one group and were not an average of individual school rankings.
The majority of Northeast Mississippi schools and districts fell into the Successful category.
“Successful doesn’t mean Level 3,” Jordan said. “They are a successful school on a national level.”
Tougher standards
The debut of the new accountability ratings is a key step in raising the bar for Mississippi schools. The state Department of Education has been revising curriculum frameworks, the Mississippi Curriculum Test and Subject Area Tests with an eye on making them more rigorous. To do well on the tests, students have to show critical thinking skills, not how many facts they’ve learned.
In determining the student achievement, the state education department used Mississippi Curriculum Test, second edition results for students in fourth through eighth grade and the Subject Area Tests – Algebra I, English II, Biology and U.S. History. Schools got the most credit for advanced scores, followed by proficient and then basic, which determined the quality of distribution index, or QDI.
For this year, schools with 10th to 12th grades did not receive ratings because none of their students had taken the MCT-2 in eighth grade, which is the baseline the state is using to determine growth for the high school subject area tests required for graduation.
The new model also heavily weighs student academic growth, which is determined for each individual student and then averaged for school and district scores.
“We want to see a full year of learning for a full year of school,” Jordan said.
Growth made a big difference in the ratings for many school districts. Tupelo Public School District received an Academic Watch rating because the district didn’t meet growth expectations.
Lee County Schools had a lower measure of student achievement than Tupelo, but was rated Successful for meeting its student growth expectations.
High performers
Corinth superintendent Lee Childress was happy with his district’s High Performing designation, but he was especially pleased with the high school effort that achieved Star School status.
“What we saw was consistent performance on only four subject area tests,” Childress said.
The Corinth high school students especially made gains on the English II test which pushed the school’s student achievement QDI index above 200.
“That is the toughest assessment,” students are required to take for graduation, Childress said. “We saw significant growth there … our English II students really stepped up to the plate.”
There were 29 Northeast Mississippi schools and six districts that received the High Performing designation, the second highest level in the new model.
High Performing districts like Oxford, New Albany and Pontotoc City schools have their eye on the top rankings for the district and individual schools.
“We’re pleased to be one of the high-performing districts,” said Bill Hamilton, director of curriculum and testing for Oxford Schools. “Our ultimate goal is to be a Star district.”
Several schools and districts just missed attaining Star and High Performing status.
“The high school was pretty close on our growth,” to reaching High Performing, but was ranked as Successful, said Pontotoc City Superintendent Adam Pugh. “It’s a challenge that lies ahead of us.”
New Albany also had two of its three schools rated High Performing and one school as Successful.
“We were reasonably satisfied in an awful lot of areas,” said New Albany Superintendent Chuck Garrett. “We definitely have places where we need to do work.”
Low performers
Okolona was the only district in Northeast Mississippi to earn a Failing rating. The district narrowly missed being an At Risk of Failing district, with its 99 student-achievement QDI just one point below the cutoff.
There were four Failing schools in Northeast Mississippi – Okolona High School, Holly Springs Junior High and West Oktibbeha County elementary and high schools. There were 16 schools and five districts in the region labeled At Risk of Failing.
Under the Children First act, the state can take over Mississippi districts that are rated failing two years in a row. State Department of Education committees are currently studying what those recovery school districts will look like.
Moving target
The process of implementing the new accountability model doesn’t end here. Student achievement QDI cutoffs will rise 10 to 13 points a year through 2012.
“We’ve got to do better to be a high-performing district,” Oxford’s Hamilton said. “If you score the exactly the same, you’ll be Academic Watch.”
This year, the average gain in the student achievement QDI index was three points for 2008-2009 scores, Garrett said. It will be a big jump to meet the 10 to 13 point increase in the index.
“We’re going to do our best,” Garrett said. “But that’s a daunting task to improve.”

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