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

A Northeast Mississippi school district lost its battle with the state to block accountability ratings it says are unfair, while two schools that serve special needs students received some extra time before officials decide whether they deserve a grade.

At a state Board of Education meeting Thursday, members voted to deny the Corinth School District’s appeal of its accountability grade. The board delayed making a decision on grades for the Harrison County Child Development Center and Pascagoula-Gautier School District Exceptional School. Both schools exclusively serve students with special needs.

Schools receive annual A-F 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. Last spring, 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 because the state allowed them to operate differently and prepare for a different exam than what traditional schools take. The other special schools also did not receive grades in the past before Mississippi’s ESSA plan was implemented.

Corinth’s initial attempt to block those grades failed when the State Board of Education approved the ratings in November 2018 as unofficial, meaning the grade has no punitive effect until the 2018-19 school year. Corinth received a C as a district, the elementary school was rated D, the middle school was rated C, and the high school was rated F. The Pascagoula and Harrison County special schools each received an F.

On Thursday, Corinth Superintendent Lee Childress appeared before the board to appeal those grades once more, telling members the district is doing good work and the ratings do not reflect that. Corinth is a “District of Innovation,” meaning the state gives it flexibility in instruction. The district runs on a four quarter school year and teaches students with the Cambridge Assessment International Education based curriculum, meaning students are not preparing all year to take the MAAP assessment.

The grades are “an unjustifiable black eye on the district and the Corinth community,” Childress said.

The ESSA law does have some flexibility in which assessments can be used so long as they align to the state standards — Mississippi Department of Education officials told the board the Cambridge Assessment does not align to Mississippi’s standards.

Board chair Jason Dean said there is a fundamental difference between Corinth’s situation and the special schools, because they serve populations that are comprised entirely of special needs students. The board voted to delay making a decision on these two schools because they expect the Legislature will take up legislation this session that could reclassify these schools as programs, thereby exempting them from receiving grades under ESSA.

“For schools that are educating 100 percent special needs, severe profound mental retardation, I don’t think the intent or the spirit of the law would be to say let’s give them a grade…and let’s publicize that because that’s what ESSA requires us to do,” Dean said.

Pascagoula superintendent Wayne Rodolfich agreed, telling board members the students in his school have a typical IQ range of 15-25 and many operate at the developmental level of a 10-month-old child.

“Regardless of how we frame the accountability model in the state of Mississippi, in this specific case…I don’t believe you can punitively, publicly humiliate children that are exceptional with a letter grade to improve performance,” Rodolfich said.

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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.