Mississippi Department of Education headquarters in Jackson

The U.S. Department of Education has told Mississippi public education officials that they must provide more details about how they are meeting the challenges faced by underperforming students.

The request came in a Dec. 19 letter from the U. S. Department of Education in response to a new state plan that was filed Sept. 18 to meet the demands of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), a federal law that replaces the No Child Left Behind Act passed by Congress in 2001.

Mississippi is one of several states which received letters from the U.S. Department of Education this month seeking additional feedback on their plans to overhaul the state’s education system. The Mississippi Department of Education must resubmit the plan by Jan. 4, according to the letter, although it is allowed to seek an extension of that deadline, which state officials say they intend to do.

Some details of the Mississippi Succeeds plan include eliminating the achievement gap between all students and African-Americans and reducing the gap in graduation rates of special education students and other students. In addition, the state aims to see an overall graduation rate of 90 percent by 2025.

State Education Superintendent Carey Wright

The letter, addressed to Mississippi State Superintendent Carey Wright, states that officials reviewed specific sections of the Mississippi Succeeds plan that deal with three federal programs which target homeless students and students from low-income families.

The U.S. Department of Education asked for more clarity in certain parts of Mississippi’s plan, including the method it will use to track and report the progress of English Language Learners and the way high schools may earn extra points for participation and performance in certain accelerated courses and the growth of students in the bottom 25th percentile of performance.

The feedback also asked for clarity in how the state will help its neediest schools, one of the main components of the plan. Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, states must identify and provide support to the lowest-performing five percent of all schools receiving Title I funds, or high-poverty schools.

In addition, the state will identify schools with a particular subgroup of students struggling with proficiency and work directly with that subgroup.

In its feedback, the federal government said the plan needs a definition for a “consistently underperforming subgroup” and that the exit plans for those schools with extra support is not specific enough to ensure continued success after the state department leaves.

The feedback also says the state must describe how it will review the allocation of resources to districts that include a significant percentage of schools identified for extra support. Mississippi needs a more specific plan to heighten the awareness of school personnel of the specific needs of runaway and homeless students, in addition to removing barriers for enrollment for those students.

“The MDE is reviewing the feedback and will work with stakeholders to provide clarity, and adjustments if needed, to ensure the plan complies with the law and meets the needs of Mississippi students. Given the nature and timing of the feedback, the MDE will ask ED for an extension to the re-submission deadline,” Wright said in a statement to Mississippi Today.

As of Tuesday, 22 other states that submitted a plan this fall received an “interim feedback letter” with suggestions on respective state plans. The U.S. Department of Education has already approved 16 states which submitted their plans in the spring.

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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.

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.