PINE BELT (WDAM) - The Mississippi Department of Education released school district performance ratings for the 2014-2015 school year Thursday, and two Pine Belt school districts are top performers in the state.
Lamar County Schools and Petal School District are two of the 19 school districts in the state to receive an A rating.
In 2013, the U.S. Department of Education offered a waiver to all states switching accountability assessments from older models to the The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC), which Mississippi uses, or to the Smarter Balanced Assessment.
"Mississippi has been and is currently through these accountability results under this federal waiver, which basically holds schools harmless to a previous year's data." said J.P. Beaudoin, Chief of Research and Development for the Mississippi Department of Education.
Under this system, all school districts receive a letter grade for 2015 with and without a waiver. Beaudoin said districts are allowed to keep the same grade they received the previous year, the district's official grade, or accept the new grade, the without waiver grade. However, this is the last set of results covered by that waiver.
"Our superintendents have worked diligently to implement higher learning goals in their districts, and the teachers and administrators should be commended for their hard work as evidenced by Mississippi's performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress," said Carey Wright, state superintendent of education, in a news release. "The waiver has enabled them to continue this important work without having to worry about being sanctioned if their test scores dropped during the transition period."
But Beaudoin said a district's without waiver grade isn't necessarily a good indicator of its 2015-2016 grade because the state is once again resetting its standards.
"The accountability system will be rerun in a standard setting process, which we did in 2013, will also be done in order to calibrate the baseline, so that we can make judgments about growth in the future years," he said.
Beaudoin said this year's grades combine the Mississippi Curriculum Test (MCT2) and PARCC, which he said are "two very different tests." Because of PARCC's "high standards of learning," Beaudoin said it's not accurate to use 2015 grades to compare school districts or even performance within the same district from year to year.
"They should not be used to compare from one year to the next or within the current year," Beaudoin said.
He said using high school graduation rates or performance on subject tests that haven't changed in the last two years, like science and history tests, would be a more accurate indicator of improvement or decline.
When asked how the 2014-2015 results are beneficial to MDE if they can't be compared, Beaudoin said reporting results is a federal requirement.
Dr. John Kelly, chairman of the State Board of Education said, "The state will be experiencing growing pains as we continue to raise the bar for academic standards, but I believe as we challenge students, we will help equip them with the knowledge and skills they need to be successful in college, career and life."
Beaudoin said changes to standards and testing practices are hardest on high performing districts.
"The greater challenge in any accountability system is (for) very high performing schools and school districts to maintain very high performance," he said.
Lamar County School and Petal School Districts had A grades in 2014 and in 2015, both with and without the waiver.
"High performing districts that are able to continue to be high performers are, that is a significant accomplishment to sustain high performance," Beaudoin said.
Along with the 2014-2015 results being the last year for the waiver, Beaudoin said this is also the last set of results that will be created by combining two types of testing criteria, which should create comparable scores.
"Next year, meaning this fall, we will have two assessments that are equivalent in their rigor, in their design," he said. "One is already on the bridge scale. The other is the bridge scale, so now we will be able to technically and accurately determine growth and proficiency. Then reset the baseline in order to start accountability with a new, established baseline through standard setting that, again will occur this fall."
Beaudoin said the 2014-2015 results end the state's current testing scale, which was created in 2013. The next set of results, which are scheduled to be released in October, will combine the Mississippi Assessment Program (MAP) with PARCC.
"All that sunsets," he said. "PARCC scores from last year now combined with MAP will be used to reset the system used in future years and for comparative purposes."
Wright said, "Parents and communities will have better information to determine if their children and schools are meeting expectations for college and career preparation."
WDAM 7 News contacted Lamar County Schools, Petal School District, Forrest County School District and Hattiesburg Public School District but was told by each that superintendents, assistant superintendents and accountability directors were attending an educator's conference on the coast.