The politicians and others who pushed A-F rankings for Mississippi schools said it would bring more clarity to a hard-to-understand system that previously had seven descriptive labels.
Everyone has been in school and understands intuitively how to interpret A, B, C, D and F, the reasoning went. The old designations of “Star,” “High Performing,” “Successful,” “Academic Watch,” “Low Performing,” “At-risk of failing,” and “Failing” were less precise and more open to interpretation. Or, as some critics suggested, more likely to provide an inflated view of actual performance. A “C” ranking, for example, used to be “Successful.”
But there was also the additional argument of incentive. Advocates pointed to Louisiana and Florida, where A-F proponents cited the change as pivotal in motivating schools to improve performance and communities to demand it.
Some will say that is why the statewide rankings this year, announced last week, were much improved over 2012. It was the first year the A-F system was fully in effect – no more using the add-on descriptive of the old system, as in “C” – Successful.
Last year there were three “A” districts; this year there are 18. Forty percent of school districts statewide were either an A or B. The number of “F” districts was reduced from 20 to 15.
The explanation is not quite as simple as changing rating symbols, however.
One big change was factoring back in schools’ graduation rates, which could be used to improve rankings where test scores had brought a district or school near the threshold of the next level. And certainly there were districts that simply did a better job of zeroing in on areas where improvement was needed, as was the case in Tupelo, which is celebrating big test score advances, particularly the dramatic progress at Tupelo High with its return to flagship status on an “A” rating.
Still, there’s a certain directness about the A-F system that brings both increased understanding and, in the case of those below A and B, a greater sense of urgency – within the schools and in the community – to improve. A “D,” for example, would have sounded even harsher than “Academic Watch” did for Tupelo the first time in 2009, and may have sped up the recovery and renewal now taking place.
For the next couple of years as the new Common Core state standards are fully implemented in Mississippi schools, rankings can only improve, not decline. That’s to give schools a temporary reprieve from what will likely be the case with Common Core – greatly reduced performance levels because of a much more challenging curriculum and tougher tests.
After that interim, schools won’t have any such protection and the numbers aren’t likely to show anywhere near the same proportion of “A” and “B” schools. It won’t mean students are learning less, just that they are being expected to learn more, and to be able to apply what they learn.
As with grades assigned to individual students, the letter grade a school or district gets still can’t tell you everything about them. Just as some “A” students can get that designation with little effort, and for others a “B” represents a major achievement in overcoming big obstacles, some school districts start out with greater resources and a larger percentage of students whose home lives give them an academic advantage. Some schools without those built-in advantages must work harder to get a good grade.
But as with individual students, advantage shouldn’t define expectation for schools and districts. Expectations should be high for all.
Mississippi’s schools aren’t graded on the curve. What they get is what they get. Straight A’s across the board may be an unrealistic expectation, but it still should be the goal.
LLOYD GRAY is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or firstname.lastname@example.org.