State changes ranking method

djournal-Education_apple_booksBy Chris Kieffer

Daily Journal

Mississippi schools now have greater incentive to improve the test scores of their lowest-performing students.

The state Department of Education passed on Jan. 17 a new method for ranking the state’s schools and districts. It places heavy emphasis on the growth of students in the bottom 25 percent of the school or district.

“That is something we’ve not seen before,” said Pat Ross, director of accountability services with the Mississippi Department of Education. “We’ve obviously paid close attention to those students before, but now it is being measured, and we think that will have a big impact on our state.”

The model immediately goes into effect, and the first results of it will be announced next fall, based on tests students take during the current school year. However, because of the state’s transition to the Common Core State Standards, districts will be allowed this year to keep the ranking they received last fall if it is higher than the new one.

The model replaces the one the state has used since the 2008-09 school year, which used Quality of Distribution Index, determined by a formula that gave schools a score based on how their students performed on state tests.

Students on those tests score, from lowest to highest, minimal, basic, proficient or advanced. The QDI awarded more points as students moved to a higher category.

The new model awards them for the percentage of students scoring in either of the top two categories – proficient or advanced – and for whether they have grown from one year to another.

Seven categories

In it, elementary and middle schools will be judged by seven categories: percentage of students proficient in reading, math and science, growth of all students in reading and math and growth of the bottom 25 percent of students in reading and math. Science scores will be based on the fifth- and eighth-grade science tests.

Growth will be determined differently than it was in the last model. Then, students’ past scores were plugged into a formula that predicted what they were expected to score, and they met growth if they reached that target.

Now, they will meet growth if they move up by a level, if they remain proficient or advanced or if they move up within the lowest two levels.

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“It uses simple growth, and it is easier to explain to parents and the business community,” said Corinth Superintendent Lee Childress, who chaired the state’s accountability task force that developed the new model. “Also, I think the way growth is going to be measured will be easier for teachers and administrators to understand and explain.”

The focus on the lowest-performing students will force a greater emphasis on those students.

“Those are the students all across Mississippi who could have the greatest impact on improved student achievement,” Childress said.

In addition to the seven above categories, high schools also will be judged on science and history proficiency, graduation rate and college- and career-readiness. Beginning during the 2015-16 school year, they also will be judged on “acceleration.”

College- and career-readiness will be measured by ACT scores, although it is contingent on the Legislature paying for students to take the test. The “acceleration” measures participation and passing rate in college-level programs like Advanced Placement or dual-credit classes.

Also, for the first time, lower elementary schools will receive rankings, even if their students don’t take state tests. Those rankings will be based on how well their former students who remained in the district performed on their third-grade tests at their new school. Growth will be based on how fourth-graders perform.

Students don’t take the tests until third grade and two years of data are needed to determine growth.

Open process

The process for the new model began during the summer of 2011 when the accountability task force was created to look at a way of better applying graduation rates to the old model. It resulted in a complete revision of the system.

Many of the recommendations also were codified into state law in a 2013 Senate bill authored by Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, the chair of the senate education committee.

“One of the best things that came out of this task force was the transparency with which this system was developed,” the MDE’s Ross said. “Every task force meeting was open, and we received feedback during the meetings and informally and formally. That was very beneficial to us.”

The MDE ran data to see what would happen if last year’s test scores were moved into the new model. It essentially moved more schools and districts toward the middle of the bell curve.

Superintendents do have some concerns about the changes. One of them is the introduction of a new accountability model at the same time the state is introducing new standards in the Common Core, new state tests and new ways of evaluating teachers and administrators.

“A time of rapid change can create great opportunities for the districts that stay focused, try to remove as many distractions as possible from teachers and administrators and allocate resources wisely,” Loden said.

Loden also said he would have liked to have seen districts get more credit for having students consistently score at the advanced level.

Lee County Superintendent Jimmy Weeks said he likes the ability to get growth credit for students who move up within minimal and basic categories, even if they don’t advance to a higher level. He does not, however, like that districts only get credit for students who graduate with traditional diplomas, not for those who receive GEDs or occupational diplomas.

Another concern, said Monroe County Superintendent Scott Cantrell, is that smaller and more rural districts will have a harder time offering Advanced Placement and dual-enrollment classes.

“It is obviously well thought out and they spent a lot of time and made a lot of good points, but the fear of the unknown has us all worried,” he said.

Change questioned

The model replaces one that was highly ranked. Education Week ranked the state as the 10th best for standards, accountability and assessments. Some, including Loden, question why the state would replace a model that received high marks.

Those involved with the process of developing it, however, said they think it is superior and also is easier to understand and explain.

Citing the transparent process under which it was created, Tollison called it “one of the best models in the country.”

“As far as I’m concerned there is a direct correlation between a good school and how they are doing under this model,” he said. “I think it will show there are some schools out there that are doing a good job that was not necessarily reflected in the old model.”

chris.kieffer@journalinc.com