Waiver will pause school rankings

news_education_greenBy Chris Kieffer

Daily Journal

Most Mississippi schools and districts will not receive new letter-grade accountability rankings this fall.

Instead, they will keep the grade they received last fall, under a waiver granted Tuesday night by the United States Department of Education.

The state’s education department had requested the waiver to help schools making the transition to the Common Core State Standards, new guidelines for teaching reading and math that Mississippi will use fully next year. Encouraged to do so by the MDE, many schools began using the new standards this past school year in order to have more time to prepare for them.

However, the state tests students took were based on the old state frameworks and not on Common Core. Since results of those tests are used to determine rankings, education leaders argued those rankings would not be a true measure.

“It is not fair to hold them accountable for something they haven’t taught,” said State Board Chairman Wayne Gann on Wednesday. “To do so would have discouraged them from moving on.”

The waiver means schools and districts would keep their ranking based on test scores, student growth and graduation rates from the 2012-13 school year.

“It avoided a situation where the school districts who did what they were supposed to do would have been penalized for following the directions of the MDE,” said Booneville Superintendent Todd English.

Schools actually began the year last August believing there would be a waiver, but learned during the spring it was in doubt. A 2013 state law required USDE approval on Mississippi’s new accountability model, including the waiver.

“We still have accountability, but we won’t be punished for going with the Common Core, going with what we were supposed to,” said Amory Superintendent Tony Cook.

As part of the waiver, Mississippi agreed to still report all of its test data from the 2013-14 school year, including school letter grades based on those results. Schools will be able to use that ranking, if it is higher.

“We are confident that these measures will help to ensure that all schools are held accountable for student achievement, while also acknowledging that this is a time of transition,” Monique Chism, USDE director of student achievement and school accountability programs, said in the the notification to MDE.

The waiver only covers the 2013-14 school year, meaning schools and districts will receive letter grades for the upcoming school year, the first in which they will be tested on the Common Core. Experts expect those grades to be lower because of the difficulty of the new tests.

Mississippi originally had requested a waiver for both 2013-14 and 2014-15 school years, but State Superintendent of Education Carey Wright said getting this waiver was important.

“Next year when the entire nation is going to a new assessment, everyone will be in the same boat in terms of having implemented the Common Core State Standards and being assessed on those next year,” Wright said. “It is a fair way to go.”

Next year, Mississippi students will take new tests designed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, a consortium of multiple states. A second waiver would have given the state time to develop targets for student growth based on the first year of data for the new test. An important element of Mississippi’s accountability model measures whether or not each student meets individual growth targets.

Wright said the department will work with national experts to determine how it can measure growth during the first year of a new test.

“Pivotal decisions were made this year based on us getting a two-year waiver,” said Tupelo Superintendent Gearl Loden. “We took measured risks to phase-in Common Core while still teaching the Mississippi Curriculum Framework, knowing full well we might see a dip in scores. In essence, we’ve been building a new plane and flying it at the same time, with the understanding we would not be graded on how well we could fly the newer model.”

That new model still needs federal approval, but Wright said Wednesday that would “not be an issue.”

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. High schools and districts will be judged by graduation rates.

chris.kieffer@journalinc.com