By Chris Kieffer
For each of the past three years, the Tupelo Public School District’s score in the state rankings has equaled or been better than the other three school districts in Lee County.
That score, the Quality of Distribution Index, is based upon student results on state standardized tests.
Yet in each of those years, the TPSD has had a worse state ranking than Lee County, Baldwyn and Nettleton school districts.
Those three districts have reached their state growth target each time. Tupelo has not.
Reaching that target bumps schools and districts up one level in the seven-tiered state rankings. Failing to do so has been a hindrance to Tupelo since the Mississippi Department of Education changed the way it ranks schools three years ago.
The 2011 state rankings were released last week, and the growth target is one of three factors used to determine those rankings. It uses a formula to measure whether all students demonstrated that they received a year’s worth of learning.
The other two factors are the QDI and in some cases, the graduation rate.
Of the three, the growth target is the most complex and seemingly the most difficult to address.
“I think the growth is the hard part of the formula,” said Pontotoc City Schools Superintendent Karen Tutor, whose district has met growth all three years. “It seems to be a bit vague. It is not something on which we can always put a finger.”
How growth works is this: each student is assigned a target score based on his or her results on past state tests.
After students take the state tests, the MDE measures how close each one came to his or her individual target. The total number of points a school’s students have scored above their targets and the total number they have scored below them are tallied. A negative score means missed growth.
The formula is designed to ensure that schools are paying close attention to all students.
“Gone are the days of old where you could teach to the middle and tutor the ones not in the middle,” said Amory Schools Superintendent Gearl Loden, whose district has met growth the past two years. “If you do that, you are not going to meet growth. You have to literally reach every child.”
State tests rank students as minimal, basic, proficient and advanced. The QDI is determined by the percentage of students who score in each category, with more points being awarded for the higher categories.
An easy way for schools and districts to quickly improve QDI, said Lee County Federal Programs Director Casey Dye, is by finding students who are on the bubble between two levels, concentrating on them and moving them up to the next level.
The problem with that approach, Dye said, is that it doesn’t help with growth. To do that, you also have to focus on the kids in the middle who won’t move up a level but must still meet their individual target.
Tupelo Interim Superintendent David Meadows has set a goal that the district will be a High Performing one next year. That would mean it would go from the fourth tier in the state rankings to the second one.
The easiest way for it to do so would be to improve its QDI by four points, not an impossible rise on a scale between zero and 300, and, of course, meet growth.
The district is trying several approaches to reach this goal. This summer, several Tupelo teachers met to write a new curriculum for district teachers. That curriculum is designed to ensure that students learn all the required skills several weeks before the state tests and that teachers are presenting those skills in more depth.
Teachers also developed several tests that should allow them to see students’ weaknesses earlier.
“We understand the critical importance of growth in the model,” Meadows said. “We have rededicated ourselves to doing the things we need to do to meet growth.”