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Mississippi education board delays letter grade rankings

Mississippi’s state Board of Education balked Thursday at approving A to F ratings for schools and districts until October, citing discontent with the proposed ratings.

The refusal disrupted a carefully choreographed release process, meaning unofficial or projected grades will come out before the board approves them. The move also leaves open a small possibility that the board will demand substantive changes to the state’s accountability system, meaning schools and districts could end up with different grades than the unofficial marks.

Board member Johnny Franklin of Bolton spearheaded the delay, saying he hadn’t had enough time to study information and had heard too many concerns.

“There are so many issues and so many concerns from the folks out in the districts,” Franklin said. He has long been concerned that board members didn’t get information early enough to properly consider it. Franklin refused, when approached by reporters, to elaborate on those concerns.

Board President Jason Dean dismissed the chance anything would change because of the delay, although he said their might be changes in grades assigned after the current school year.

“We all want to make sure we have an accountability model that accurately reflects the progress of students across the state,” Dean said.

Under the unofficial numbers, more districts would fall in the ratings than improve, even though test scores and high school graduation rates improved statewide. That’s because last year’s ratings were inflated by artificially high test-growth numbers caused by computational difficulties in translating results between different standardized tests. Although the number of A-rated districts would increase and B-rated would fall by only one, the number of F-rated districts would increase from nine to 23 under the unofficial results. Chief Accountability Officer Paula Vanderford said there would have been 21 failing districts last year if schools hadn’t been allowed to pick an easier standard from the year before.

State officials realized this year that high schools would end up with dismal ratings, and the board voted to reset high school grading levels. However, because such a reset mandates a certain number of districts get each grade, that provoked protests that the board was automatically failing some districts.

“We don’t like the target moving either,” Vandeford said in a committee meeting Thursday morning, although she said it was necessary.

The confusion will rain on the parades of some districts that posted remarkable improvement, such as the North Tippah district, which vaulted from a C to an A driven by high growth in student standardized test scores.

“To be an A-rated district and be able to say that, that’s huge for your community,” said North Tippah Superintendent Bill Brand. He said the district had focused on improving the weaknesses of individual students.

The state would assign grades for the first time to the Mississippi School for the Deaf and the Mississippi School for the Blind, saying they are required under state and federal law to assign a grade to every public school in the state under the same accountability system. Those schools would get Fs, as would schools in Harrison County and Pascagoula that serve special education students exclusively. Assignment of those failing grades provoked extensive protest at a Commission on School Accreditation meeting on Tuesday.

The state also plans to assign a C grade to the Corinth, which uses an alternate curriculum. Corinth sued the state Wednesday in Hinds County Chancery Court, saying the projected grade was unfair because the state agreed years ago to develop an alternative grading system but then reversed itself in June. Corinth’s ACT scores suggest its students perform more in line with A- and B-rated districts. Hinds County Chancery Judge Dewayne Thomas denied Corinth’s request for a temporary restraining order, saying it would be improper for him to intervene in an administrative dispute.

There are also concerns that the grading system is unfair to mostly rural schools that include grades 7-12. None of those scored above a C.

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