All schools in Mississippi are capable of earning good ratings under the state’s grading system, but the model does not encourage schools to focus on all students, according to a new national report.

On Tuesday, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute released a report that examined the accountability component in each state’s recently submitted Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) plan. Every state is required by the U.S. Department of Education to develop a new plan under ESSA, a federal law that provides schools and districts more flexibility to improve equity, transparency, accountability and access to high-quality early education than its predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute and its affiliated Foundation state their mission is to promote educational excellence in America via research, analysis and commentary, as well as advocacy and charter school authorizing in Ohio. Their ESSA study measured each state and the District of Columbia by three objectives:

• School ratings are assigned in a way that is easy to understand for parents, educators and the public.

• The accountability system encourages schools to focus on every student instead of just low-performing ones.

• The system is designed in a way grades every school, including high-poverty ones, fairly.

The study found that most states continue to rate schools in a way that was clear and easy to understand, and many are “doing better at signaling that every child counts, not just the ‘bubble kids’ near the proficiency cut-off,” Brandon Wright, co-author of the report, told Mississippi Today. States are making less progress when it comes to making accountability systems that are fair to high poverty schools, he said.

Mississippi was “strong” in two of the three objectives in the study. The state’s A through F grading system easily conveys to the public how their school is doing, the study said.

In an email, Mississippi Department of Education spokeswoman Patrice Guilfoyle said the A through F grading system encourages schools to focus on all students, not just low performers.

However, the study gave Mississippi a “weak” rating for measuring students with proficiency rates instead of a performance index or scale scores, which the authors suggest may cause schools to focus on low-performing students.

“Mississippi received a weak rating for its failure to encourage schools to focus on all students,” Wright said. “Mississippi could’ve accomplished this by measuring achievement via average scale scores or a performance index, and by giving substantial weight to a measure of academic growth for all students from one year to the next.”

Guilfoyle said one concern with the model is that school grades are based completely on the progress students make from one year to the next.

“Making progress certainly is a good thing, and that is considered when Mississippi calculates school grades,” Guilfoyle said. “But also considered is how many students are performing at grade level in core subjects because that is what most matters, to ensure kids are college and career ready. Combining the progress made by all students with grade-level proficiency creates a balanced approach to accountability and sets clear goals for schools and teachers.”

The state also earned a strong rating for having an accountability system that measures all schools fairly. Student growth makes up 57 percent of an elementary or middle school’s annual rating, and 40 percent of a high school’s annual rating. Guilfoyle said schools only earn credit for growth if it is “meaningful,” meaning students must increase a performance level that is proficient or above every year.

“Growth measures quantify changes in achievement over time, independent of whether students start as high or low performers; hence they’re less correlated with poverty and unrelated to prior achievement,” Wright said. “Annual school ratings should, above all, accurately assess the true performance of schools, and that can’t be done unless it’s possible for high-performing, high-poverty schools to actually earn positive ratings—and under Mississippi’s plan that is indeed possible.”

In Mississippi, elementary and middle schools are graded on a 700 point scale that measures growth and proficiency in reading, math and science for all students.

High schools are graded on a 1,000 point scale encompassing 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.

The Mississippi State Department of Education submitted the “Mississippi Succeeds” plan on Sept. 27. The plan is still under review with the U.S. Department of Education.

The Mississippi Succeeds plan calls for eliminating the achievement gap between all students and African-Americans. The federal law also requires states to reduce the gap in graduation rates of special education students. Mississippi’s plan will also specifically target low-performing, high-poverty schools. The federal government now requires states to identify and provide support to the lowest-performing five percent of all schools receiving Title I funds, or high-poverty schools.

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Kayleigh Skinner

Kayleigh Skinner

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 three years with the company. Skinner most recently served as deputy managing editor before assuming the role of managing editor. Kayleigh has a bachelor’s in journalism from the School of Journalism and New Media from the University of Mississippi. Before joining Mississippi Today, Kayleigh worked at The Hechinger Report, Chalkbeat Tennessee, and The Commercial Appeal, and has appeared on MSNBC, NPR, and BBC Newsday Radio to discuss her reporting.