Corinth School District Superintendent Lee Childress Credit: Miss. Assoc. of School Superintendents

Citing the need to comply with federal law, education officials awarded several special schools unofficial A-F grades Thursday despite arguments that the state’s accountability system does not measure them fairly.

The State Board of Education initially delayed the decision to award accountability scores for the 2017-18 school year to the Corinth School District, Mississippi School for the Blind, Mississippi School for the Deaf, Harrison County Child Development Center, Pascagoula-Gautier School District Exceptional School citing a need for more time to examine federal guidelines.

Schools receive annual ratings based on several factors including levels of proficiency and progress in tested subjects on the Mississippi Academic Assessment Program (MAAP), the state test most schools in the state use. Earlier this year Mississippi implemented its version of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), a federal law that requires the state to assign a grade to every school.

Before these grades were made public, Corinth took legal action against the state to block their release, arguing the district’s unofficial C-rating was misleading and inaccurate. The other special schools also did not receive grades in the past.

Corinth has been a “District of Innovation,” since 2016, meaning the Mississippi Department of Education gives it flexibility in instruction. The district uses a Cambridge Assessment International Education based curriculum and Cambridge assessments instead of MAAP.

Prior to adoption of the ESSA plan, Corinth was working with MDE to develop an alternative accountability model that would fulfill the requirement that every school receive a grade but measure Corinth by the Cambridge curriculum it was using instead of MAAP. The district wanted to use a federal flexibility waiver to do this, but MDE stated that would not apply to Mississippi.

After the meeting, Corinth Superintendent Lee Childress said he was extremely disappointed in the board’s decision.

“We had done very little with the MAAP assessments because we were operating under the premise the Cambridge assessments would be what we would be graded on,” Childress said. “We do not believe it is an accurate reflection of the achievement and growth that is going on in our school districts and our schools.”

Board member Johnny Franklin, the only member to vote against confirming the grades, told his peers he was concerned the board’s decision may deter other districts from applying for innovation status.

“The state board and the Department (of Education) entered into an agreement with Corinth School District and gave it flexibility through state law to get to where we are today, and now we’re saying ‘oops, all that’s off’ when ESSA says there is flexibility,” Franklin said.

Board chair Jason Dean acknowledged the district is performing well in many other measures of academic progress — Childress said the district’s average ACT score is 20.9 — but the board is obligated to comply with federal law.

“They’re doing things different and it’s working,” Dean said. “Unfortunately they got caught up in an accountability issue that’s converged with federal government change. We’re trying to figure it out and do what’s right and oh by the way follow the law, which is what we have to do.”

The unofficial grades are listed below. In the 2019-20 school year, all schools will receive official grades.

• Mississippi School for the Deaf: F

• Mississippi School for the Blind: F

• Harrison County Child Development Center: F

• Pascagoula-Gautier School District Exceptional School: F

• Corinth School District: C

  • Corinth High School: F
  • Corinth Middle School: C
  • Corinth Elementary School: D

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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.