By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – The Tupelo Public School District made gains in closing its achievement gaps during the past school year.
The district’s recent improvements on state test scores were bolstered by gains made by students in a wide variety of demographic groups.
Last December, the Daily Journal published a three-day series about the district’s gaps in student performance between white and black students and between poor and non-poor students. It noted that closing those gaps is critical to the future of both the city and its schools as Tupelo’s population becomes more diverse.
School leaders said at the time that closing gaps does not mean bringing all students to the middle, but rather improving the scores of all groups. Recently released data suggests that is what happened during the past school year.
In 2011, 39 percent of black students scored at least proficient on elementary and middle school state tests, compared to 74.5 percent of white students. Meanwhile, 39.42 percent of economically disadvantaged students reached that mark, compared to 75.33 percent of their peers.
Last spring, 46.17 percent of black students scored proficient, as did 80.58 percent of white students. Meanwhile, 47.08 percent of economically disadvantaged students and 80.83 percent of non-disadvantaged students were proficient.
Each group improved by more than five percentage points.
“Looking at student performance, the district has made positive gains, and we have a tremendous amount of potential,” Tupelo Superintendent Gearl Loden said. “We have potential to move all of our subgroups.”
The above averages were determined by analysis of the Mississippi Curriculum Test, Second Edition, an exam taken by third- to eighth-grade students in every school district in Mississippi. The Daily Journal averaged the results of each of the 12 tests – English and math for each of the six grades.
The average is slightly skewed because it assumes that exactly the same number of students took the test in every grade.
Proficient is the second highest of four levels in which students can score on the test. It means students have shown solid mastery of the content and skills on their grade level. Scoring proficient is recognized by educators as doing well on the test.
Economically disadvantaged students are those who qualify for and receive federal free- and reduced-price lunches based on family income.
Tupelo also saw gains in the percentage of Hispanic and Asian students who scored proficient on last spring’s tests.
Tupelo’s 7,500-student population remains diverse this year, with about 50.1 percent of its students black, 43.3 percent of them white and 6.6 percent other minorities. About 61 percent of the district’s students are economically disadvantaged.
School Board President Eddie Prather said that closing gaps remains a priority of the board.
“We are focused on the achievement of all students,” Prather said. “We feel if achievement improves for all students, groups at the bottom will improve as well.”
Prather said the gap is still not closing fast enough, and the district has to continue to look at how it uses its resources, including expanding early-childhood education and supports at early grades so that students don’t fall as far behind at a young age.
“It is a challenge,” he said. “We can not afford to have one population of our students not performing at a high level. We need to work hard to accomplish that for all students.”
Loden, who took over as superintendent in June, also noted a focus on prekindergarten and early grades. He said the district will host meetings with kindergarten through second grade parents to tell them how well their children are mastering needed skills.
“Addressing the gap starts with a clear vision in every one of our classrooms of what students are supposed to know and be able to do,” Loden said. “We are intentional about keeping our eye in three main areas: more time on direct instruction, using data and assessments with expertise and a renewed focus on the quality of teaching.
“So, you’re likely to see things like more rigorous reading and writing instruction and adequate chunks of time spent meeting the needs of students who need extra help. That translates into a pushing up effect for all students.”
Executive Director of Curriculum Leigh Mobley, who is also new to the district, said the district increased its focus on individual students last year and will continue to do so.
Gone are the days where teachers can teach to the middle, she said.
The district expects all groups of students to improve, she said, including gifted students. She expects a new reading program added by the district will help, as will the addition of two administrative positions dedicated to boosting struggling students.
TPSD Testing Coordinator Lea Johnson said the district placed a big emphasis on data last year, including using a computer database that made it easier for teachers to gauge student strengths and weaknesses. That emphasis is even greater this year, she said.
“I think awareness of teachers of what was happening made a difference,” she said.
Johnson said the district has expanded the number of common assessment tests it gives to students to allow teachers to see how well each one is mastering required skills. Two years ago, it gave one or two of those tests, last year students took three or four, and this year they will take six or seven, depending on the grade level.
Addressing the gaps remains important not only to the school district, but also to the city. Tupelo Mayor Jack Reed Jr. said he likes what the new data reveals.
“Those results are very encouraging because our whole success depends on everyone’s success,” he said.
Black pastors interviewed for last year’s series also said they have seen improvement in the emphasis placed on closing achievement gaps.
Bishop Clarence Parks of the Temple of Compassion and Deliverance in Tupelo said he has gotten the impression from those in his church that they have seen a greater effort in the school system trying to reach everyone.
The Rev. Charles Penson of Tupelo said he has been encouraged by what he saw from Interim Superintendent David Meadows and from Loden.
“I think the atmosphere has improved as far as a focus on that disparity and trying to do something to close that gap,” he said.