OPINION: The stakes have been raised for Mississippi's schools

The difference between Mississippi’s old school accountability rating system, which rated schools from Level 1 to Level 5, and the school and district accountability system being implemented this school year is like the difference between competing for a state championship and a national championship.
It is just like Ole Miss and MSU football competing for state bragging rights compared to competing for national bragging rights. There is a big difference!
Under the old accountability system a school was only compared to the state average. It was not surprising then that for the last three years of the old system, 25 percent or more of schools were rated Level 5 Superior and over 50 percent were rated Level 4 or Level 5. Now, our schools and districts will be measured against schools and districts across the country.
Under the new accountability system, the highest rating, “Star,” is based on comparisons to top performing states and schools. A national standard for excellence is needed because that is the standard our students and our state are competing against. In this first year of the new standard, about four percent of schools will receive the highest rating of Star School. About 17 percent of schools will reach the next highest rating of High Performing. Both Star and High Performing schools are performing above the national average. Schools at the next level of rating, Successful, are performing anywhere from just below the Mississippi average to about the national average. About 20 percent of schools are estimated to reach the Successful level.
Schools ratings are based on achievement, academic growth or improvement and, the graduation rate for schools with graduates.
Achievement is measured by the Quality of Distribution Index (QDI). The minimum QDI is zero and the maximum is 300. The state QDI is 149. Growth, on the other hand, is based on whether students demonstrate performance equal to or better than expected based on how they performed the previous school year.
Many of the schools that do not reach Successful and receive the status of Academic Watch are still reaching the state average or better.
However, these schools may not have had the academic improvement expected. These schools have the potential to move into the Successful category with the right effort. About 25 percent of schools are in this category.
These school ratings, due to be released on Nov. 23, may surprise some folks. However, the results are not so surprising when we realize the difference between the “old” standards for rating schools vs. the “new” standards. Even though the new expectations may seem very high for some schools, I believe our schools are up to the challenge. The state of Virginia went through an adjustment in its standards and expectations like this almost ten years ago. In 2000, just seven percent of Virginia’s schools met the highest standard; in 2009 nearly 98 percent met that standard.
I have no doubt that we can see dramatic improvement in Mississippi’s schools just like Virginia experienced. We have hard-working, dedicated teachers and administrators and talented students who are as bright and capable as students anywhere. While recognizing the difference between the old accountability ratings and these new ratings is important, it is more important for us to rally behind our “team” of students, teachers, and administrators and to help them strive for the new goals the state Board of Education has set for our state. Rising to this challenge will require hard work, but the future of our students and our state are well worth it!
I will officially start as State Superintendent of Education at the beginning of 2010 and look forward to serving our state but most importantly serving our boys and girls as we prepare them to reach their highest potential.

Tom Burnham, dean of the School of Education at the University of Mississippi, has been appointed by the state Board of Education to serve as state superintendent of education. He will assume office in early January. Contact him at MDECommunicationsOffice@mde.k12.ms.us.

Tom Burnham