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For the first time in two years, public schools will be graded on student performance, prompting excitement from some school leaders and frustration from others who are concerned about how COVID learning loss will be represented in the data.
Public schools in the state receive A-F letter grades through what MDE calls its accountability model. It measures elementary, middle and high schools on a variety of factors including student performance and improvement in tested subjects like math and reading, as well as growth during the school year, and graduation rates.
In the spring of 2020, public schools across the state were closed because of the pandemic and state tests were not administered. The following school year, schools and districts were granted a waiver so that state tests would still be administered, but students would not be required to pass them and districts would not be graded on their performance. Results from that school year saw a decrease in the number of students passing, the first snapshot of how learning was impacted by the pandemic.
At the March State Board of Education meeting, Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) officials said it was their goal to minimize changes to the accountability model, so that test scores and grades could be compared to their pre-pandemic counterparts as much as possible.
Ken Barron, superintendent of Yazoo County Schools, wishes the adjustments to the accountability model had been decided sooner.
“It’s frustrating to be having this conversation in March,” he said. “I’m an old coach, and I knew before the game started how they were going to assess who won the game. I didn’t get into the fourth quarter before they explained the rules to my team.”
The calculations of school grades this year must be adjusted slightly to address the missing data from 2019-20; MDE has proposed using data from before the pandemic to fill the gap. The suggested adjustment is currently available for the public to review and offer comment on.
“I appreciate the Department of Education opening it up for public comment and listening to the teachers, parents, and administrators,” said Alan Lumpkin, superintendent of the Pearl River county school district. “They’re the ones that have been on the front lines during this pandemic, and they’re the ones that are being measured.”
Lumpkin said he believes schools should be graded on student performance this year but would like to see this year’s scores used as a baseline moving forward, rather than compared test scores from before the pandemic. In his eyes, the state is in a new era of education that should require some re-examination of how the accountability model functions.
Todd English, superintendent of the Booneville School District, also believes that it is time to return to state testing, but wants communities to take the new letter grades “with a grain of salt.” Since a portion of the accountability model is based on growth, it incorporates data from prior school years to measure that growth.
“It’s going to take a couple of years for this to work itself out mathematically where the public can determine the effectiveness of a school based on letter grades,” English said. “The formula doesn’t account for a pandemic.”
English explained that elementary and middle schools will likely show strong growth this year compared to 2020-2021 scores, but that the level of growth will be difficult to maintain moving forward. He anticipates that high schools will have the opposite problem, since their growth will be compared to pre-pandemic test scores in some areas. This will likely make it difficult to show growth at all because of the learning loss that has occurred.
“MDE is in a no-win situation,” English said. “There’s not a right answer, there’s not an easy answer, there’s really not an equitable answer available.”
Adrian Hammitte, superintendent of the Jefferson County School District, has mixed feelings about the return of schools being graded on student performance. He knows students are still struggling with COVID learning loss, but feels everyone in his district has been working diligently to overcome the pandemic-induced challenges.
“I know this may be surprising, but I’m kind of excited about having the accountability model back because we are currently an F school district,” Hammitte said. “Because of the pandemic…they didn’t provide a letter grade, and we’ve been stuck with an F label (from the 2018-19 school year). Our teachers have been working very hard with students and parents despite the challenges and for us, we’re actually excited about the opportunity to remove that F label.”
While Hammitte is excited about the school grades being assigned again, he wishes some accommodations had been made for students taking the third-grade reading assessment, since they can be held back if they do not pass. A bill passed the Senate that would have allowed this year’s failing students to move on to fourth grade with remediation, but died in the House.
”If you look at our third-grade student population, those students haven’t been in school consistently since kindergarten and we know that’s where you build their foundational skills,” Hammitte said. “I believe it’s going to be difficult for quite a few of those third-grade students to get to that (benchmark).”
Cherie Labat’s concerns about equity in the accountability model began before the pandemic. Labat, superintendent of the Columbus Municipal School District, explained that disparities in personal wealth and community economic development create different starting points for children, meaning that some districts have more work to do than others.
“You expect everybody to finish the same way, but they don’t start the same way,” Labat said.
Labat had been hoping that the pandemic would provide a push to innovate the accountability system, allowing a variety of stakeholders to be brought into the conversation. She understands that MDE has been working diligently on accountability issues, but was disappointed that the model was not more broadly re-examined.
“You’re really putting a negative stamp on the students, community, and businesses, and we have to understand that when we do that, we’re not making the community move forward, we’re regressing, and regressing the areas that need economic and community development the most,” Labat said. ”A superintendent can’t descend on a school district and fix it by themselves. … The journey to get districts where they need to be for the students and families that they serve, it’s an audacious task.”