The state’s annual assessment of public schools, released Thursday morning, shows improvement overall in official grades. But real performance is masked by a special waiver.

In terms of official grades for the 2014-15 year, the number of F-rated districts dropped from 1 in 2014 to 0 in 2015, and the number of D-rated districts decreased from 39 to 30 in the same time frame. The number of A and B districts stayed the same at 19 and 43, respectively.

However, 2014-2015 was the final year for which school districts could use waivers to keep a previous year’s score if it was higher than the current score.

A different picture emerges when the waivers are not used: the report shows that just three school districts (Corinth, Lamar County and Petal) would receive an A and only 12 would receive a B grade. Looking at the non-waiver grades, one school district (Clay County) would receive an F, 62 would get a D and 68 would be at C, the report shows.

Schools and districts’ accountability ratings for 2015-16 will be released later this year and will no longer reflect the scores with waivers.

The school districts receive a grade ranging from A through F based on student achievement, test-score growth, graduation rate and participation rate. But the state’s new accountability model places a major emphasis on student growth, particularly for the lowest-achieving students.

Students meet the criteria for growth if their scores improve from one proficiency level to the next or move dramatically within lower proficiency levels — but for schools with a majority of students who are already high-performing well, it can be tough.

For example, Clinton Public School District’s official grade for 2014-15 is an A. But the district only got that grade because it used a waiver that allows it to use the previous year’s grade if it was higher due to the transition to Common Core-linked standards.

Without that waiver Clinton’s grade drops to a C for 2014-15.

The same goes for Oxford and Long Beach districts. Other longtime A-rated districts, Madison County and Desoto County, both would have seen their grades drop to B based on the 2014-15 data.

Mississippi first implemented Common Core standards, or a set of academic standards in English Language Arts and mathematics, in 2010. The state still uses Common Core but calls it “College- and Career- Readiness Standards.”

Clinton Public School District spokeswoman Sandi Beason said the growth part of the accountability grade has a unique impact on Clinton.

“Clinton has for many years been a very high achieving school district, and it’s a major difference for us to see the way ratings were configured … but we do make a concerted effort in Clinton to raise up children who are falling behind,” she said.

Beason also noted several points to remember when looking at the accountability data. One is that the data is two years old and “not a reflection of what Clinton is doing now,” she said. She also said it’s important to remember the grade is based on results from the first year of the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) test, which was later dropped by state officials.

“Instead of focusing like a laser on taking the test, we focused on professional development and giving teachers the support they needed to implement the new curriculum,” Beason said. “Obviously since then we’ve had more time to train … and will keep improving each year.”

Over the past three years, Mississippi has used three different end of year tests: the MCT2 (Mississippi Curriculum Test) in 2013-14, PARCC in 2014-15, which the state later opted out of amid anti-Common Core sentiments from state officials, and the Mississippi Assessment Program in 2015-16. Thus, districts and schools’ accountability ratings have been based largely on students’ results on different tests, and prompts education officials to warn against comparing the two years’ grades.

“There are some limitations in the data we’re using, and I’d like to emphasize the limitations are nothing to do with the accountability design but rather an artifact of using two very different assessments,” the state education department’s chief of research and development J.P. Beaudoin said.

Corinth School Superintendent Lee Childress, who serves as the chair of the state Commission on School Accreditation, pointed out that even the rigor levels of the two tests are different.

“The issue is that there are statistical, psychometric issues that have to be considered” when looking at this year’s grades, Childress said. “People have to understand because all these dynamics involved, the data shouldn’t be used to compare school to school and district to district.”

The Commission on School Accreditation serves as an advisory body to the state.

As the state Board of Education was briefed on the report on Thursday, board member Charles McClelland noted that while federal, state and local school administrators know about the use of waivers to prop up districts scores, “the community doesn’t know” about the impact of the unofficial grades.

“I’m not suggesting we try to make this look any better than it is,” said board chair John Kelly.

The state’s new accountability system was adopted in 2014. It changed the old model to emphasize student growth, particularly the lowest performing 25 percent of students, and no longer gives schools partial credit for students who obtain their GED and other types of nontraditional diplomas.

“Our superintendents have worked diligently to implement higher learning goals in their districts, and the teachers and administrators should be commended for their hard work as evidenced by Mississippi’s performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress,” said Dr. Carey Wright, state superintendent of education. “The waiver has enabled them to continue this important work without having to worry about being sanctioned if their test scores dropped during the transition period.”

Wright encouraged schools to pay attention to their graduation and proficiency rates between the 2013-14 and 2014-15 to gauge whether student achievement is improving.

Moving forward, the state education department will work to combine schools’ two most recent years of scores to “reset the system for future years and for comparative purposes,” Beaudoin said.

“The state will be experiencing growing pains as we continue to raise the bar for academic standards, but I believe as we challenge students, we will help equip them with the knowledge and skills they need to be successful in college, career and life,” said Dr. John Kelly, chairman of the State Board of Education.

Here are the grades for each school district in the state, including the grade the district would have received had it not used a waiver to maintain its score from the previous year.

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Kate Royals is a Jackson native and returned to Mississippi Today as the lead education reporter after serving in the same capacity from 2016 to 2018. Prior to that, she was a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger covering education and state government. She won awards for her investigative work, including stories about the state’s campaign finance laws and prison system. She was a news producer at MassLive in Springfield, Mass., after graduating from Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communications with a master’s degree in communications.