While more Mississippi public school districts are rated a C or higher this year, seven are in danger of being placed under state administration for a pattern of poor performance.

The State Board of Education approved the 2016-17 district and state level accountability scores at it’s regular monthly meeting on Thursday. In a wrinkle reported earlier this year, schools and districts are being allowed to keep a higher grade if they received a lower rating under the new baseline cut scores the board approved in August.

Of the 143 school districts and 3 charter schools to receive grades, 15 received an A, 43 received a B, 43 received a C, 36 received a D and 9 received an F. Last year, 143 school districts received grades: 14 received an A, 39 a B rating and 36 a C. There were 35 districts rated a D, and 19 received an F.

“These results reflect the progress and achievements students have made on state assessments, the ACT, advanced courses and the state’s rising graduation rate,” State Superintendent Carey Wright said in a release. “Teachers, principals and district leaders have been diligent in their work to help students meet higher academic standards and achieve better outcomes.”

State Education Superintendent Carey Wright Credit: Kayleigh Skinner, MIssissippi Today

Although the state saw improvements in graduation rate and math, reading and science proficiency, six districts earned a failing grade for the second school year in a row. Under state law that makes them eligible to state takeover.

Prior to the release of accountability results, the Jackson Public School District was already  in danger of state intervention. The Mississippi Commission on School Accreditation and state Board of Education declared an extreme emergency existed in the district that warranted state takeover, and both groups recommended Gov. Phil Bryant declare a state of emergency in the district. Bryant said he would wait to make a decision until after the official accountability scores were released, and told the Associated Press on Wednesday that he was open to a third option.

2017 public school district grades

In the 2016 legislative session, lawmakers passed a bill to create the Achievement School District “for the purpose of transforming persistently failing public schools and districts throughout the state into quality educational institutions.”

The law says any district that receives an F for two consecutive years, or twice in three years, is eligible to be absorbed into the Achievement School District.

A separate law passed in the 2017 legislative session created the District of Transformation model. When the the Commission on School Accreditation and State Board of Education both decide an extreme emergency exists in a district, they can request that the governor declare a state of emergency for the district to be taken over by the state become a District of Transformation.

In both cases, the local school superintendent is replaced by a state-appointed administrator and the local school board is replaced by the state board.

There are three reasons the governor can declare a state of emergency:

• The State Board of Education and Commission on School Accreditation each determine an extreme emergency exists in a school district that threatens the safety, security and educational  interests of students or is related to serious accreditation violations.

• A school district is a failing district for two consecutive years.

• More than half of a district’s schools are designated as “at risk” or a school remains at-risk after three years of implementing an improvement plan

MDE Chief of Accountability Paula Vanderford (left) Credit: Kayleigh Skinner/Mississippi Today

Mississippi Department of Education Chief Accountability Officer Paula Vanderford said that in either situation state takeover is not mandatory.

“In both cases it’s a ‘shall’ not a ‘must,’” she said.

Greenville Public School District, Holmes County School District, Wilkinson County School District, Noxubee County School District, Jackson Public School District and Humphreys County School District each received an F rating for the second year in a row, which leaves them eligible to join the Achievement School District. Although it earned a D in 2015-16 and an F this year, Leflore County School District is also eligible for a declaration of a state emergency, because more than half of its schools were rated F.

Jackson, Noxubee, and Humphrey districts are also eligible for the Achievement School District because more than half of their schools were rated F.

For each district, the decision is ultimately up to the state Board of Education.

During the meeting, the board approved new selection criteria for the Achievement School District. In addition to the existing criteria:

• The ASD would only take on as many schools as it has the capacity to serve.

•  Districts are eligible if 50 percent or more of a district’s schools are rated F, or 50 percent or more of the students in a district attend an F school.

With the new criteria approved, the state Department of Education will begin their search for the Achievement School District Superintendent. Wright told the board she hoped to “fast-track” the superintendent search so the district could open for the 2018-19 school year.

Board member Karen Elam said she would prefer that no schools are added to the district until a superintendent is named.

“I just think pointing to them (school districts) and saying ‘you’re going to be in the achievement school district, we’ll be getting you a leader in the near future’ is not going to sit well,” Elam said.

Wright disagreed and said it would be difficult to recruit candidates without an idea of how many schools he or she would oversee.

“I think that’s going to probably inform a superintendent as to whether they really want to apply for this position or not,” Wright said. “I don’t know that I would apply for the unknown.”

In efforts to evaluate the performance of public schools, Mississippi has administered three different tests (Mississippi Curriculum Test, PARCC and the Mississippi Assessment Program) over the past three years, so the state has been forced to come up with an alternate method of calculating the growth component of the accountability rating system. The method was designed to allow the state to compare year-to-year test results from different tests to calculate how many students moved from one proficiency level to the next.

State education officials realized that growth scores from 2015-2016 were artificially inflated and thus impacted the 2016-17 ratings.

This year, elementary and middle schools were graded on a 700 point scale measured by performance and proficiency in reading, math, and science for all students and low-performing students.

High schools were graded on a 1,000 point scale comprised of growth and proficiency in reading, math, science and U. S. History, as well as graduation rates, college and career readiness, and participation and performance in special courses such as advanced placement and international baccalaureate.

This year marks the first in which results are from the same test, the Mississippi Academic Assessment Program, over a two-year period.

Vanderford acknowledged it has been difficult to measure growth during a period of time where three different assessments were used, and the change caused many high schools to see an increase in growth. This year, the amount of A schools doubled, she said. There are “some lingering issues that we have to address at the high school level,” she said.

“We’re dealing with those unintended consequences, and again, it all goes back to the fact that we’ve had three assessments over the course of three years and we’ve tried to maintain a statewide accountability system throughout that time and growth has been one of those issues that has continually been a topic of conversation as an unintended consequence,” she said.

Charter schools Reimagine Prep and Joel E. Smilow Prep each received a D and Midtown Public received an F.

“While the overall letter grades and scores don’t meet expectations, students attending charter schools are making growth in reading and math,” Mississippi Charter School Authorizer Board chair Krystal Cormack said in a statement.

Cormack noted each charter was in the top quarter of 700 point schools for math growth with their lowest-performing students.

“The Authorizer Board anticipates that charter schools will continue to increase both their growth and proficiency performance each year in order to meet the Authorizer Board’s expectations,” she said.

At the Commission on School Accreditation meeting Tuesday, members asked state officials how they could compare charter schools performance to traditional public schools.

Vanderford said although each of the charter schools falls near the bottom of the list of districts when measuring by cut scores, it is not an “apples to apples” comparison because the schools do not serve kindergarten through grade 12.

“If you have the listings of performance for all the districts, they’re going to show up at the very bottom because they have the lowest numerical counts,” director of accountability services Alan Burrow said in response to the commission. “But they’re on the 700 point scale so no, it’s not an apples to apples comparison, to answer your question.”

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Kayleigh Skinner joined the Mississippi Today team in January 2017 as an education and legislative reporter and advanced to a senior staff member in her four years with the company. Before joining Mississippi Today, Kayleigh worked at The Hechinger Report, Chalkbeat Tennessee, and The Commercial Appeal. She has appeared on MSNBC, NPR, and BBC Newsday Radio to discuss her reporting.