In an unexpected twist, the State Board of Education decided to delay the approval of statewide school grades.

Each year the Mississippi Department of Education releases statewide results under embargo to the media. This year the embargo was scheduled to be lifted Thursday at noon but during the Sept. 20 board meeting, member Johnny Franklin asked to push this decision to October because he’d heard concerns from the public and wanted members to have more time to examine the grades and accountability model as a whole.

“What are we rushing to?” Franklin asked. “There’s no other reason for us to rush through this is there?”

State superintendent Carey Wright argued there is a reason — districts have been asking for years to get their results sooner in the year so this year the department agreed to release them in September. They are typically released in October or November.

Despite this, the board agreed to delay approving the grades until next month and the Department of Education promptly released an email to media advising them to “wait until October” to report the grades. Because the embargo was scheduled to be lifted at noon Thursday, the accountability ratings were already published by some media outlets.

But all grades are preliminary and unofficial until the board approves them next month.

While more Mississippi school districts earned the state’s highest grade this year, according to the unofficial grades, the number of districts at the lowest level have also increased by a higher margin.

For the 2017-18 school year, 18 districts received an A, 42 were rated B, 38 were a C, 28 were a D, and 23 districts were an F.

This year about 65.8 percent of school districts were rated C or higher, a dip from the 69.3 percent in 2017. MDE Chief Accountability Officer Paula Vanderford said this is due to a change the State Board of Education made to the grading system last year. For the 2016-17 school year, districts were allowed to keep the higher grade if they received a lower rating under new baseline cut scores used to set the A through F grades.

This year’s preliminary results used the same cut scores, but there was no safety net. If districts didn’t have the option to choose the higher score last year, 21 would have received F’s, she said. There are also a handful of districts who earned unofficial grades this year which some local superintendents described as unfair.

Mississippi uses a complicated system to assign letter grades to schools and districts. At the elementary and middle school level, schools are graded on a 700-point scale which measures student performance and improvement in tested subjects like math and reading, as well as growth during the school year.

High schools and school districts are measured on a 1000 point scale, and this year the State Board of Education tweaked this model to ensure schools with a 12th grade were measured accurately. These schools earn their ratings based on factors like graduation rates, participation and performance in advanced placement and international baccalaureate classes, and the progress students make during the school year.

Of the 23 F-rated districts, five received that preliminary grade for the second consecutive year, which opens them up to the possibility of state intervention: Sunflower County Consolidated, Holmes County, Humphreys, Noxubee and the Jackson Public School District.

Schools that earn an F for two years in a row can be placed in the “District of Transformation” model or Achievement School District. In both situations the local school board is replaced by the State Board of Education and the superintendent is replaced by a state-appointed one.

The Jackson Public School District was almost taken over last year for poor performance but instead was placed in a partnership between the City of Jackson, Gov. Phil Bryant’s office, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to examine and fix systemic problems. The Noxubee County School District was taken over earlier this year for serious financial and academic issues.

There are also a handful of school districts eligible for placement in the Achievement School District, which Wright said she hopes is operational in the upcoming school year. Schools with half or more of their schools rated F can be placed in the district. Based on accountability data, Amite County, Clarksdale Municipal, Coffeeville, East Tallahatchie Consolidated, Jefferson County, Humphreys, Philadelphia, Durant, Holly Springs, Jefferson County, West Bolivar Consolidated, West Tallahatchie, and Yazoo City Municipal school districts fit this criteria.

Midtown Charter School (charter schools are recorded as a district and an individual school) also received an F the last two years. Although the state Department of Education assigns accountability ratings, it’s up to the Mississippi Charter School Authorizer Board to decide whether to intervene.

In a phone call with reporters, Wright said charter schools in the state launched with students below grade level and they continue to add a grade each year, so “expecting significant progress in one or two years is unrealistic.” The decision to revoke a charter belongs to the Authorizer Board.

This year’s results have a degree of consequence for other charter schools as well — the Authorizer Board delayed making a decision to approve or deny a RePublic Schools, Inc. application to open two new schools in Jackson next year depending on Thursday’s accountability ratings.

RePublic operates three schools in Jackson currently — ReImagine Prep, Smilow Prep and Smilow Collegiate — and in their first two years, ReImagine and Smilow each earned a D. This year, ReImagine Prep improved to a C and Smilow Prep remained a D.

Board chair Krystal Cormack told Mississippi Today the board wanted to examine whether if the operator has improved student achievement this year before making a decision to approve any new schools.

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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.