OPINION: Don’t expect many Stars with higher school standards

For the past few years, there has been much talk about increasing the rigor of the education Mississippi provides to our boys and girls.
To the credit of the Mississippi Board of Education (MBE) and many other education leaders across the state, there have been major changes in the curriculum and state student assessments, which have begun to move k-12 education off the bottom or near the bottom of many lists comparing our state to others. The MBE continues to have a vision and a bold goal to have our students scoring at the national average on the National Assessment of Educational Progress Exam (NAEP) by 2013.
The Mississippi Curriculum Frameworks or learning standards for language arts and math, along with the continued work to increase the rigor of science and social studies, has provided the rigor to challenge our students to become better thinkers and better learners. Two years of a more rigorous curriculum and corresponding assessments now are matched with a new accountability rating system that will more accurately reflect how our kids are performing on state tests that are more closely aligned with national expectations.
The 2009 Statewide Accountability Rating System will debut this fall and communities will learn of their schools’ and districts’ classification. Under the old system, communities knew that if their schools were rated a Level 5, they were classified as among the best in the state. However, the question remained, were they among the best schools in the country? A large percentage of our schools were consistently rated at a high level using the old accountability system, but the state’s performance on the NAEP exam remained at or near the bottom.
The MBE took the step to suspend the old system while waiting on the second year of data to calculate growth. With the new accountability system, levels are non-existent. Schools and districts are starting with a blank slate. Schools and districts will earn classifications ranging from “Star” to “Failing” with Star Schools and Star Districts reflecting the performance of the best schools anywhere in the nation. The new classifications, from highest to lowest are as follows: Star, High Performing, Successful, Academic Watch, Low Performing, At Risk of Failing and Failing.
With the increased rigor in the curriculum and the state tests, more is being asked of our students than ever before. With the new accountability system, the same is being asked of our schools and districts. As such, the classifications of the schools in your community may seem, at first glance, to decline. When the ratings of Level 1, Low-Performing to Level 5, Superior-Performing system were last released in 2007, approximately 25 percent of our schools fell into the highest category. Because we are asking more of our schools and districts than ever before, we are not likely to see 25 percent of our schools receive the Star classification. Again, Superior-Performing under the previous system meant the best in Mississippi and now Star will mean performing well above the national average, which is what superior performing should mean.
The new accountability system will also shine the light on our schools and districts that are underperforming and identify schools with the greatest needs allowing early intervention to help them become higher performing schools. The department has put a strategic plan in place to help assist these schools and districts so that they have all available tools to help them begin to perform at the level that we all know they can. However, even with assistance from the state these schools and districts will not be able to turn the corner alone.
Even more than state support, our schools need local support. Communities that have excellent schools are communities that demand excellence and provide the support necessary to achieve excellence. Teachers and school leaders cannot rise to the new level of expectations alone. Business and community leaders must join hands with them to achieve excellence.
The new accountability system will hold schools and districts to a new higher standard helping them reach the national average on student performance and greatly improve graduation rates. The new accountability system will be one piece in a larger puzzle that helps solve other issues such as health, per capita income and the quality of life that has kept Mississippi at or near the bottom. As the MBE strives to change the culture of education with its goals and strategies for improving education, I believe the lives of all Mississippians will improve and in this new culture, the challenges we face today will become a part of the past.

John W. Jordan is the interim state superintendent of education. Contact him at MDECommunicationsOffice @mde.k12.ms.us.

John Jordan

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