LLOYD GRAY: Making the grade gets tough

By Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal

The new grading system the Legislature instituted for Mississippi’s public schools has the advantage of familiarity.
Everyone knows and has experience with an A-F grading scale, painful as it may have been at times. That’s the point, according to its legislative sponsors and Gov. Phil Bryant, who signed the bill last week. “It will be an accountability system that parents understand,” the governor said.
But are the current rankings really so hard to understand? Star, high-performing, successful, academic watch, low-performing, at risk of failing and failing are directly descriptive. They’ve certainly been an improvement over the previous Level 1-5 system.
The current rankings were put in place three years ago at the same time as more rigorous accountability standards, and the result has been fewer Mississippi schools in the top tiers than under the old Levels 1-5.
It’s a more realistic assessment. Mississippi’s rankings had become a little like Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average.
Now just as parents and the wider community are coming to understand the current rankings, they’ll change again. And while the standards will remain the same and rankings will simply be a letter grade instead of a descriptive label, it’s not clear that the translation is entirely accurate.
An “A” ranking will be rare under the new system, unlike the grading in most schools where A’s now mean 90 and above. Only schools and districts ranked star under the current system would get an A in the new one. This year in the 16 counties of Northeast Mississippi, there would be no A’s at all for districts and only eight for individual schools.
Current high-performing schools and districts will get a “B” under the new system. While many students and parents are happy with a B, it’s not a grade generally associated with “high-performing” students these days. Good students, yes, but not the high performers.
Successful schools will now get a “C.” Is that really “successful” in most parents’ minds? Many parents I know would put their kids on academic watch if they came home with a bunch of C’s. But academic watch gets a D under the new system.
And is there really no difference in low-performing, at risk of failing and failing schools? All will get an F next year.
Under the current system, star is rare, as it should be, and represents the absolute best of the best. So why not A-plus for stars and a mere A for the high performers? Successful would then translate to B, a more accurate association in most people’s minds, academic watch to C, low-performing to D, at risk of failing to D-minus and failing to F.
Sen. Nancy Collins says the idea is to raise the bar, and this system will certainly force schools to achieve much more to get grades that please the public. But when the new system is in place, communities need to be aware that high-performing schools that become B schools didn’t regress – they just have a new grader who’s a lot stingier with the A’s.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@journalinc.com.