As the Mississippi Department of Education was preparing to release annual grades this week, one Northeast Mississippi school district took the state to court, arguing that the accountability model was fundamentally unfair.

The Corinth School District filed a complaint for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction, saying the district’s accountability rating shouldn’t be made public because it’s “completely inaccurate and misleading.” The district also accused MDE’s decision to release the rating as “arbitrary, capricious, and disingenuous.”

A handful of schools will receive “unofficial” grades this year, meaning they were measured using the same accountability model as the rest of the state but won’t face punitive measures for performance.

On Thursday, the state was scheduled to approve accountability scores but instead voted to delay approving those scores until next month. The scores had already been released to the media under the agreement that they would not be made public until after Thursday’s meeting. Until they are approved, these scores are preliminary and unofficial.

Since 2016, the Corinth School District has been a “District of Innovation,” meaning the state gives it flexibility in instruction. Corinth operates on an unusual four quarter school year and also uses a Cambridge Assessment International Education based curriculum. 

Through the “District of Innovation” program, Corinth was able to incorporate an educational program designed by Cambridge instead of the curriculum decided by the state.

Corinth, like the other schools, did not receive an annual rating in years past because it was a District of Innovation but a federal law — the Every Student Succeeds Act — requires the state to assign a grade to every school. Although the grades won’t count this year, the 2019-20 school year’s accountability ratings will be official.

According to the complaint, the Cambridge program included testing measures that “tracks directly parallel” to MDE’s method of measuring academic growth.

Since February 2016, the Corinth School District was working with MDE to develop an alternative accountability model, the complaint states. This accountability model would both satisfy federal requirements that every school receive a grade but would be modeled to measure Corinth by the Cambridge curriculum it was using – not the Mississippi Academic Assessment Program (MAAP), the state test utilized by most schools.

The complaint builds out a timeline showing how MDE collaborated with the Corinth School District for two and a half years in creating an alternative accountability model for the district until June 2018, when, according to the complaint, MDE officials told Corinth Superintendent Lee Childress that the department was, “denying the district’s request for a separate accountability model.”

In a statement, Childress said he was pleased the department delayed a decision on accountability results.

“The unofficial accountability scores reported for Corinth School District are erroneous and do not accurately reflect the outstanding performance of our students, teachers, and administrators,” Childress said. “We hope this delay will give the Mississippi Department of Education time to compute our grades accurately based on our innovative curriculum, as promised when we were named a District of Innovation.”

According to the complaint, MDE told Corinth School District that approving an alternative accountability model was pursuant to a federal flexibility waiver, which expired in 2017. Corinth argues that MDE’s interpretation of that federal waiver is wrong.

“MDE’s abrupt and inexplicable denial and refusal to work further on the district’s alternative accountability model is in direct conflict with obligations imposed on MDE … it is also a complete 180 from the active participation of MDE in the development of the alternative accountability model for the previous two and a half years,” the complaint reads.

Corinth argues that it’s excelling under the Cambridge standards adopted in 2016, and that even though the state accountability grade will be unofficial, “no asterisk or footnote statement or qualification could adequately avoid the immediate and irreparable harm that will result from the publication of the erroneous accountability results.”

The district argues that releasing the scores will result in immediate and irreparable harm in the following ways:

• “Erroneously report the district as an under-performing district despite its history of successful performance”

• Demoralize the district’s “students, teachers, principals, community, superintendent and Board of Trustees – having been led to believe by defendants that it would have an alternative accountability model based on Cambridge”

• Personally and professionally damage the reputations of the district superintendent, board members, principals, and teachers as educators

• “Have a damaging effect on the community’s ability to recruit new economic development and maintain existing economic development due to the perception of the district as an underperforming district.”

• Negatively affect district students in the college applications

• “Have a chilling effect on the willingness of other districts to participate in the Districts of Innovation program.”

Each year the state releases these grades to the media, who report it out to the public. The state argued that Corinth’s attempt to keep its grade from the public was “wholly inappropriate.” All grades will be made public Thursday, and “any order from this court which either attempts to restrain the press – or requires defendants to attempt to restrain the press – will … result in a publicity firestorm,” the defendants stated.

Chancery Court Judge Dewayne Thomas ruled on Wednesday afternoon that while he is “sympathetic to [the district’s] situation,” he lacked jurisdiction to intervene because the judiciary by law can’t participate in any agency’s administrative process.

Schools and districts receive annual ratings from the state on an A through F scale as a way to measure student progress and proficiency on state assessments and other courses. The way these grades are assigned factors in proficiency and progress in tested subjects like reading, math, science and U.S. History, graduation rates, participation in college and career readiness courses and other classes. 

At a Commission on School Accreditation meeting Tuesday, a Mississippi Department of Education official explained to members that the grades were required.

“These schools did not know that they were going to receive a grade prior to the beginning of the academic school year and so these school grades are going to be considered and reported unofficial,” said Alan Burrow, director of the office of district and school performance.

State Superintendent Carey Wright echoed that statement Wednesday, telling reporters on a press call “It’s not an option for us to do this, it’s a requirement we must do this.”

Although every school is required to receive a grade now, two special schools which students reside on campus are graded in a unique way. The Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science and the Mississippi School of the Arts test their students just like traditional public schools, but those students’ scores feed back into their home districts rather than the school they attend because “There’s already established business rules and policies in the accountability system that assign those students back to their home school and attribute their accountability measure back to their home school,” Burrow said.

Preliminary ratings show Corinth Elementary School received a D, Corinth Middle received a C, and Corinth High received an F. The district as a whole received a C.

The Mississippi School for the Deaf and Mississippi School for the Blind will receive unofficial scores this year — both received an F, unofficially.

The Harrison County Child Development Center also received an preliminary unofficial F. At the commission meeting, superintendent Roy Gill said the accountability model is unfair to schools like this one that serve students with special needs, and pointed out the unofficial label is still damaging in the court of public opinion.

The Exceptional School in the Pascagoula Gautier School District got an F, and like the Child Development center, received a 0 or “not applicable” in each accountability measure.

“It’s unfair and unjust to label a school an F school that is providing such a need for those students,” said Gill, who also serves on the commission. “They said you have to test them so we did that. Of course they did not come back proficient. If that’s the way we’re going to have to do that we’re going to need some help with how that will be measured moving forward.”

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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.

Kelsey Davis Betz is from Mobile, Ala., and currently lives in Cleveland, where she worked as a Mississippi Delta-based reporter covering education and intersecting issues. Kelsey has a dual degree in journalism and Spanish from Auburn University and worked as an editorial intern at Texas Monthly and a courts reporter at the Montgomery Advertiser. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report and is a co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.