Schools and districts can choose to keep the higher of two grades if they receive a different accountability rating under the new baseline cut scores approved by the State Board of Education on Thursday.

Discussion between board members became heated before the vote. Johnny Franklin, the one member to vote against the motion, said he felt the state was “jerking around” schools and districts by changing the cut scores this late in the game.

Several board members shared that superintendents had called them with concerns about the original proposal from the Commission on School Accreditation adopted earlier this week. That proposal would not have allowed school districts to keep the higher of two grades.

Charles McClelland, State Board of Education member Credit: MDE

“A superintendent called me very concerned, almost in tears,” board member Charles McClelland said.

The change in approach came after educators and public school advocates across the state raised concerns about the proposal, particularly the effect it would have on the lowest-performing school districts.

“Though MDE officials have said that the current baseline scores are set too high, it appears that districts at the lower end of the spectrum are having their baseline scores raised even higher in order to ensure that 21 of them (14 percent) will be rated F. Using current cut scores, only 12 would earn an F rating, per MDE. Last year, 19 school districts were rated F,” public school advocacy group The Parents’ Campaign wrote in an email to its members.

“That means that at least 7 school districts were able to move out of the F category per the baseline scores that were set last year. Now, if percentile rankings are adopted for use again this year, the 21 lowest performing school districts will be rated F, though only 12 of them appear to have earned the F rating — even with the bar set ‘too high,’ ” the email continued.

The Commission on School Accreditation’s original recommendation to the state Board of Education would have allowed a “hold harmless” provision for any newly F-rated districts but would still assign the new grades as the official 2016-2017 accountability rating.

Instead of presenting the original recommendation to the State Board of Education on Thursday, department officials presented an amended recommendation.

“We felt this was late in the game to apply a random cut,” State Superintendent of Education Carey Wright said. “What we thought would be the fairest way to do this is to go ahead and run it on ’16 (2016 guidelines) because that’s what they were expecting.”

“But we need to establish a new baseline, so we can also run on ’17 (2017 guidelines) and let schools and districts know … this is the grade you would’ve received,” she said.

Then, districts would know the new target to strive for in the 2017-2018 school year without being potentially penalized for the 2016-2017 school year, Wright said.

Mississippi Department of Education officials, along with national testing experts on the technical advisory committee, advised earlier this week that a change in cut scores needed to be made because growth scores were artificially inflated last year. The inflation came as a result of trying to compare the results of three different state tests over a three-year time period.

Schools and districts are also graded based on areas besides growth, such as student achievement, graduation rate, ACT scores and participation rate.

Final district and school-level accountability grades will be released in October.

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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.