By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – For the second consecutive year, the Tupelo Public School District received an Academic Watch rating in the state accountability rankings.
Academic Watch is the fourth of seven levels in the state’s ranking system. That system rates schools based on student scores on state standardized tests, individual student growth on those tests and high school graduation rates.
Tupelo Superintendent Randy Shaver said he was disappointed with the ranking but optimistic about improvement.
“We’re still a good district,” Shaver said. “I think this year, we’ll see incremental growth.”
The district showed a slight decline this year, as its Quality of Distribution Index fell from 164 to 159. The QDI is determined by a formula based upon how students score on state tests.
Lawhon Elementary, Lawndale Elementary, Rankin Elementary and Tupelo High School were also ranked Academic Watch. Milam Elementary, Pierce Street Elementary and Tupelo Middle were ranked Successful, the third level in the rankings.
Last year, Tupelo had one High Performing school (the second-highest ranking), four Successful schools and one Academic Watch school.
The state model ranks only those schools that have grades four and higher. Students do not take state tests until third grade, and two years of student test data are needed for the state to determine student growth.
Shaver said he was not surprised by this year’s ratings, noting the difficulties of last year’s district reorganization. Schools were assigned different grade levels, attendance zones were shifted and faculties and students were moved to new campuses.
“You had principals moved to new settings, teachers moved to new settings, students moved to new settings and a new state accountability model,” Shaver said. “Any of those would be difficult to overcome.
“I’m not offering excuses. This is an explanation. There is a difference. There is no excuse in a district like Tupelo.”
The superintendent’s stated goal for next year’s rankings is to have a Successful district with all of its schools ranked no lower than Successful. The goal would then be to have all of its schools at least High Performing the following year and to be a Star district (the highest rank) by 2013.
“You can’t go from Academic Watch to a Star system overnight,” Shaver said.
When asked if there was a sense of urgency to improve quickly to reassure the community, Shaver said there is such an urgency but not because of public perception. Although the district’s ranking is Academic Watch, it is merely the name of the level and does not indicate any type of probation.
“I think a lot of the perception is created by semantics,” Shaver said. “Academic Watch sounds a lot worse than saying you are fourth on the state ladder. But there is urgency to improve because we want our students to learn more.
“The most important thing is can we get students learning what they need to learn.”
Shaver and Chief Accountability Officer David Meadows cited several tools that were not in place last year that they both believe will help the district find that improvement.
One is a new school improvement department that is working to develop the district’s curriculum and assessment tests that will allow teachers to better see students’ strengths, weaknesses and growth well before state tests. Teachers would then be able to adjust instruction to match student need.
A team of representatives from that school improvement department will also be assigned to each of the district’s four schools that are ranked Academic Watch.
That team will help teachers improve instructional techniques and will help mold professional development to meet the specific needs of that school. They will visit that school once a week.
Other new district tools include emphasizing project-based learning, increasing the rigor of courses and supplying laptops to all sixth- to 12th grade students. Tupelo has also added programs that target school-aged mothers and students at least two academic years behind their age peers.
“Though I am disappointed with the rating, I am enthusiastic and confident that our staff and students will rise to the challenge of this opportunity to move our school system to a ranking of Successful,” Shaver said. “We will continue to work towards our goal of making the Tupelo Public Schools a great school system.”
One way the district could improve quickly would be by meeting the state’s growth target. That target uses a formula to measure how much each individual student is expected to learn in a year.
Results for individuals are tallied to determine whether districts or schools showed growth. Essentially, it is looking at whether students are doing a year’s worth of learning in a given year.
Only three of Tupelo’s seven schools made growth, and all three were ranked Successful. The district, which did not make growth as a whole, had a higher QDI, or overall score, than many schools that were ranked Successful but was surpassed by those schools because they met growth targets.
Shaver said the way to overcome that is to analyze the data of individual students and give students multiple assessments throughout the year so their progress can be monitored. Meadows said the district recently added a data system that will allow it to do that.
“We should know before the state test where each and every student is,” Shaver said.
Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read more on the ratings including school by school results in today’s NEMS Daily Journal newspaper.