Corinth High School Student Grace Ann Davis said she spent hours creating a diagram to prepare her for an intensive Cambridge chemistry exam.

CORINTH — Last year, Grace Ann Davis invited friends to her house to prepare for an intensive chemistry exam, one of many she would take in high school that can earn her a specialized diploma. Together they worked on detailed, color coded charts illustrating different categories of chemicals, their relationships and reactions as a way to review the material they’d be expected to know on their exam.

“It took like six hours,” said Davis, now a junior at Corinth High School. “It was crazy.”

Davis went on to pass that exam, but her high school’s performance on an entirely separate test resulted in an unofficial F rating from the state last fall.

The district’s grades are now the subject of a longstanding battle that has spilled over into the state capitol and even the courts. Ultimately, the school district believes it is doing what’s best for students and being penalized for it, while the state says their hands are tied by a federal law.

School leaders have fought these ratings from the beginning, arguing the assessments Davis and her peers prepare for all year should be the ones the Mississippi Department of Education uses to grade the school district, not the state assessment everyone else uses.

Corinth students take state tests just like their peers do across Mississippi, but Superintendent Lee Childress has repeatedly argued using those test results to measure his students is unfair. Although the 2017-18 results don’t come with punitive measures because they are unofficial, the 2018-19 school year ratings will count.

Corinth High School principal Dane Aube worries the rating will affect business and industry in the area. The northeast Mississippi town is home to some manufacturing companies like Caterpillar Inc., a multinational equipment manufacturer, which occasionally sends executives to tour the district, he said.

“Now that someone’s looking at moving here and sees an F on that state website even if it does say unofficial, whatever that means, it’s something we take very personally,” Aube said.

The debate over ratings stems from the fact that Corinth is a District of Innovation, meaning in 2016 the state Department of Education granted them the flexibility to operate in a different way than traditional public schools. There are eight total, but each district has their own model. In Corinth, students are on a four quarter school year focused heavily on the Cambridge Assessment International Education-based curriculum, initially implemented into Corinth’s schools during the 2011-12 school year.

“This is not something that we just decided to do because of the District of Innovation,” Childress said. “This has been a way of life at the high school. It’s become a culture.”

With this model, coursework and instruction is heavily writing and research based. Students’ assignments, called coursework, are graded by their teachers in Corinth, and then boxed up and shipped off to Cambridge University in England, where university officials review the assignments themselves.

At Cambridge, officials adjust grades if they believe a teacher was too lenient or harsh. When students take their end-of-year exams — known as Cambridge International Examinations — the papers are sent to the university for scoring exclusively by Cambridge officials.

“It was a different way of teaching, it was a different way of being assessed and so it wasn’t an easy start,” Childress said. “But now its something we’re into, we’re beginning to see that our children are achieving and they’re flourishing.”

The district’s composite ACT for juniors, which all students in Mississippi are required to take, has remained at least one point higher than the state average, ranging from 18.7 in the 2014-15 school year to 18.9 last year compared to 17.8 for the state.

The graduation rate has remained higher than the state average, although the percentage took a dip in the last school year.

In 1994, Panama City, Fla., schools became the first to use the Cambridge program, according to Sherry Reach, deputy regional director of Cambridge North America. Today, about 500 schools in 32 states and the District of Columbia use the Cambridge curriculum.

Corinth High School student Grace Ann Davis (left) and Paola Leon talk about their high school experience on Feb. 11, 2019.

Corinth’s high schoolers participate in two curriculum tracks with Cambridge — the International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) and the Advanced International Certificate of Education (AICE) Diploma program.

All ninth and 10th grade students take IGCSE courses in English, math, science and history (some eighth-graders take these courses too) and have the opportunity to earn an early exit diploma if they demonstrate college and career readiness in their courses. This diploma enables them to go directly into community college or technical school if they so choose.

Students also have the option to earn a traditional diploma, but many go on to pursue their AICE diploma, which students receive once they:

  • Earn at least seven credits by passing AICE exams
  • Earn at least two credits in math and science, language, art, and humanities, respectively
  • Take and pass a course called global perspectives research

Traditionally sophomores, juniors and seniors can take AICE courses, which are more intensive and research based. During the current school year, a handful of advanced freshmen are taking AICE exams for the first time, Childress said. Grace Ann Davis, the junior chemistry whiz, was studying for an AICE chemistry exam when she and her peers created those charts.

“One of the differences with (the) exams is they are primarily composed of questions and tasks that require extended writing and very little, if any, multiple choice,” Reach said. “It’s different from that respect. It’s all about the application of knowledge and skills instead of picking the right answer from a choice of four.”

Jim Henson teaches the global perspectives course at the high school, which all students must pass in order to earn an AICE diploma. The Cambridge curriculum is a challenging one, he said, but the students are doing well with it.

“This is not at some advanced charter school with a rich population set,” Henson said. “We are a Mississippi school with the standard Mississippi population. We’re taking international benchmark exams and doing well in them.”

In the 2017-18 school year, Corinth students took 575 AICE assessments and the pass rate was 59 percent compared to 61 percent in the United States, Childress said.

More than 650 colleges and universities in the world accept Cambridge coursework and diplomas. In Mississippi, the University of Mississippi, Mississippi State, Millsaps and University of Southern Mississippi accept Cambridge. Both University of Mississippi and Mississippi State offer scholarships for the Cambridge AICE diploma.

“This certification from Cambridge, I tell my students all the time, when you’re 40-years-old it is the only thing on your resume that will count in high school,” Aube, the Corinth High principal said. “It is a separator.”

April Cole, an IGCSE mathematics instructor, poses in her classroom at Corinth High School.

Math instructor April Cole said as a teacher, it’s her job to get students ready for the exams by forcing them to use critical thinking instead of just memorization. When she taught students for the Mississippi Academic Assessment Program (MAAP) assessment in algebra, teachers had an idea of how the test might ask questions of students.

“They were going to ask them to find the slope of the graph. They were going to ask them to find slope given two points,” Cole said.

With Cambridge it’s different, she said.

“You don’t know how they’re going to ask (the question). We just know the skills they have to have. To me, they have to be able to problem-solve more to think on their toes.”

Districts of Innovation can be exempted from a range of state regulations to achieve the academic goals outlined in their plan. In Corinth’s case, the state department of education granted the district several waivers. One of them would preclude the district from receiving an accountability grade until leaders could develop a plan for using the Cambridge assessments to grade Corinth’s schools instead of the standardized state test most other Mississippi districts use.

The problem: the plan never came to fruition. In June 2018, Childress received a letter from state department of education officials which said the district would receive an unofficial grade for the 2017-18 school year using students’ MAAP exam results as federal law requires.

Mississippi must assign every school a grade under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). In Mississippi, how schools perform on MAAP, a standardized test students take in subjects like math and English, among others, is big part of their grade.

In the years prior to becoming a District of Innovation, Corinth consistently earned an A rating. The other Districts of Innovation — Baldwyn, Booneville, Vicksburg-Warren, Grenada and Hinds County — have received grades because they did not request the same exemption as Corinth. Oxford was recently named as the newest District of Innovation in March.

Ratings are calculated using a point system heavily based on students’ performance on the state assessment. Over a three-year period, Mississippi went from using the Mississippi Curriculum Test to a test called PARCC to MAAP, which is still used today. Corinth did provide the state department of education with an option for an alternate accountability model using the Cambridge exam, but the state did not take them up on the offer.

Most school districts spend the year preparing for the MAAP assessment and take the exams in April and May. Corinth students took the MAAP tests in June, Childress said.

Childress said if the district had been made aware sooner, teachers could have put more emphasis on the MAAP assessment and possibly improved scores.

“They said they made the decision in April, but yet they didn’t bother to tell us until June,” Childress said. “I have a real problem with that.”

Childress acknowledged the students didn’t perform well on the state assessment because the district did not believe those results would count.

“It was the last week of school, there was not a great deal of emphasis, there was no review,” Childress said. “There was no review for the MAAP assessments.”

As a result, the district received an unofficial C rating. The elementary school received a D, while Corinth Middle School was rated C. The high school received an F, which Aube, the principal, takes very personally.

“I’m a failure, according to MDE,” Aube said.

Corinth school officials have taken multiple avenues to contest these ratings — in September, the district filed a complaint for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction, arguing their accountability ratings shouldn’t be made public because they were inaccurate and misleading. The chancery court judge whose courtroom the case fell in ruled he did not have the jurisdiction to intervene.

From there, the Mississippi Board of Education ultimately awarded Corinth unofficial grades anyway, a decision the district appealed to the Mississippi Commission on School Accreditation. Both the commission and state board denied that appeal, so Corinth officials took the battle to the Hinds County Circuit Court. The state filed for a motion to dismiss due to lack of jurisdiction, and Corinth responded to that motion. A judge will hear arguments on Dec. 4, 2019.

The district also had some help from its local legislators — during the 2019 legislative session, a pair of House and Senate bills were introduced to force the Mississippi Department of Education “to recognize use of Cambridge Assessment for purposes of accountability rating.”

From the onset, department of education officials said either bill’s passage would put the department in conflict with ESSA, the federal law, and potentially create a floodgate of districts wanting to use their own exams. Both bills died in the legislative process.

Under federal law … we have to have an assessment that’s aligned to our state’s rigorous academic standards. MAAP was designed by Mississippi teachers to do just that,” said Nathan Oakley, chief academic officer for the department of education. 

Oakley acknowledged ESSA does have flexibility waivers that, if approved, would allow a state to use an alternate assessment. ESSA’s innovative assessment pilot would not work for Mississippi because the department does not intend to use Cambridge across the state, officials have said.

The second option allows states to use a locally selected, state approved and nationally recognized assessment in lieu of the state exam for specific districts, but it must be aligned to the state’s academic standards and meet technical requirements. The assessment would also be peer reviewed by a U.S. Department of Education committee and approved by the federal agency also.

“As we’ve watched this process though, we’ve seen repeatedly states be denied this request,” Oakley said.

Not all agree with this line of thought.

“That’s a cop out, in my opinion,” said Rep. Nick Bain, R-Corinth, who authored the House bill that died this session.

“If we’re going to allow these districts of innovation, we need to ….untie their hands at the state department of education,” Bain said. “There seems to be a disconnect between MDE and the local districts.”

Like Aube, Bain said he does not think the ratings are reflective of the district and worries how they may affect business in the Northeast Mississippi town going forward.

When industry considers moving into an area, hospitals and education are two key areas potential businesses want to know about, he said.

“You want an educated workforce,” Bain said. “It’s a lot easier to explain an A than it is a C or an F.”

Although his bill did not survive the legislative session, Bain is still looking at ways to contest these ratings. On May 2, Bain sent state Superintendent Carey Wright a letter asking for updates on the department’s actions and plans to help Corinth apply for the federal flexibility waiver.

Wright responded in a May 14 letter, outlining the two flexibility waiver options. The letter said if Corinth was interested in pursuing it, they could submit a waiver to the Mississippi Department of Education and the department was willing to review and submit an application to the federal government on their behalf.

Childress, the superintendent, said the department does plan on submitting the request to the state department of education.

“I’m hopeful,” he said. “It is my hope that this can be a beginning where the school district and the Mississippi Department of Education can come up with a solution that is in the best interest of Corinth’s children.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story misstated that Cambridge University is based in London, U.K.

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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.