PINE BELT (WDAM) - A majority of school districts in the Pine Belt saw letter grades change under the new standards and a new test given by the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) during the 2015-2016 school year.
Of the 20 districts studied in the Pine Belt, eight saw scores drop, three increased their scores and nine districts maintained the same grade from the 2014-2015 school year to the 2015-2016 school year.
"When I say I anticipated the drop, I mean, just with all of the changes - three different test in three years - we'd gotten some preliminary results, and just looking at it, I thought 'OK, yeah, we're going to drop to a B," said Tess Smith, Lamar County Schools superintendent. "'We're going to be very, very close to an A, but it's going to be a B.' And that's how it worked out."
In total, only 14 of 143 school districts in Mississippi are ranked A, including Forrest County Agricultural High School and Petal School District.
"With all the changes taking place surrounding the accountability model and state testing over the last three plus years, I couldn't be more proud of our faculty, staff and students and community for us having an A rating for the results based on the 2015-2016 school year," said Matt Dillon, superintendent of Petal School District. "As superintendent, being able to see it day in and day out what takes place in the buildings, it's not surprising because our teachers do an amazing job. Our administrators do an amazing job of guiding and providing resources, and our support staff and everyone just comes together to do what's best for kids, and I'm very, very pleased with where we're at right now."
Throughout the state, 39 districts are B districts, 36 are C districts, 35 are D districts and 19, including Jackson Public Schools, are F districts.
"The state on average is a C when it comes to academic performance, and I think that's a good starting point, especially in light of the fact that the state now has the highest standards of learning we've ever had and a rigorous assessment that measures those standards," Carey Wright, state superintendent of education, said.
"We also have a large number of schools with a D category," said J.P. Beaudoin, Chief of Research and Development for the Mississippi Department of Education. "A number of these school districts will only need a few points, perhaps one to three points, in order to meet the state board of education's goal of attaining a C or higher rating."
Hattiesburg Public School District is one of the 35 D districts.
"We have and will continue to analyze the results," said Robert Williams, interim superintendent of Hattiesburg Public School District. "Although our district rating fell from a C to a D, we did see some positives. N. R. Burger's school rating improved from a D to a C. Three schools are rated a C, Woodley, Hawkins, and Burger. Rowan is showing positive yearly growth. Hattiesburg High's graduation rate increased from 72.3 to 76.8. We are examining our leadership practices, curriculum design and implementation and literacy strategies."
Lamar County and Petal are also working to identify specific areas they would like to improve upon in the future.
"We know some focus areas now, and we're already starting to work on those," Smith said. "Again, with the three tests in three years, we've had to do some things on our own. We brought in (Northwest Evaluation Association), which we use our own internal assessment tool, that we brought in for tracking that has helped us tremendously through all these changes. So yeah, even though we saw the drop, I think we've made some improvements in a lot of areas. If you look at our literacy growth, we've put a very strong focus there over the last couple of years, and you can see that in the scores. So we need to now move into a focus on math also, and do them both at the same time."
Dillon said, "One thing I'm looking at is proficiency levels. The state tells us they want all students to be proficient and advanced. That's the goal, and we're doing that. We're moving forward as far as what we're doing this year. We had a game plan. This does not change our game plan of what we're doing because we've already looked at student results. We've already made some accommodations and changes in things that we needed to do to get better in house, and we feel very confident in the direction we're going."
Wright said the 2014-2015 Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) test results shouldn't be compared to the new data from the Mississippi Assessment Program (MAP) because two new standards- college and career readiness, which assesses ACT results, and acceleration, which includes Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate programs, approved industry certifications and dual enrollment in college - were added to the model, and this is the set of test results where Mississippi is not covered by a federal waiver.
"The state has been under a federal waiver for the last three years, meaning that districts have been able to keep the higher grade as we transitioned to higher standards and more rigorous tests, even if their letter grade dropped," Wright said. "There is no waiver for these grades, which means this is the new starting point for those F schools and districts. When the 16-17 accountability results are released, you will have a better picture of how our students and districts are performing because you'll have two years of data based on the same assessment."
Dillon said, "We're looking for consistency. Now we have something for the next nine years to be able to compare apples to apples. Of course, the 2014-2015 PARCC data, we did extremely well in state, one of the highest scores in the state, and with that, you had to show from that to this new test, which is comparing two different tests."
Smith said, "It's just change. Change can be very difficult. It's been difficult for our teachers, our students and even for parents. New standards, new tests, but we have finally leveled out. It's like we see the mark, and we can move toward it now."
Something Wright said is comparable, despite the changing tests is high school graduation rate, which has increased for the state.
"A key indicator in the accountability model is graduation," she said. "Mississippi's graduation rate has now reached an all time high of 80.8 (percent), up from 78.4 from last year."
Lamar County and Petal are well above the state's rate with 93.7 percent and 89.8, respectively, of their high school seniors graduating. Three high schools in those districts - Oak Grove High School, Petal High School and Purvis High School - are included in the 24 that ranked A out of the 240 high schools in Mississippi.
Mississippi's new accountability model measures a total 12 components to grade districts and schools, with four sections dedicated to student growth. They're broken into reading proficiency, math proficiency, history proficiency, science proficiency, reading growth and math growth for all students, reading and math low growth, which focuses on improvement of the bottom 25 percent of student scorers, college and career readiness, acceleration, participation rate and graduation rate.
Both Smith and Dillon have expressed concerns about the new MDE model's emphasis on growth because their districts already have a large number of high performing students, but both hope the will continue to be top scorers as their districts adjust to the model.
"I do like that they have that acceleration component," Smith said. "The growth model concerns me because I think you can get to a point where you grow yourself to that point, and then where do you go? The model is very different, and we're still trying to figure it out. In fact, part of it is the growth model where you have to look at you lowest 25 percent, and it does have the acceleration piece where you look at your students who are AP participants, dual credit, dual enrollment. So we're trying to look at all of that and make sure we push those areas, as well as those students that we call our bubble kids.Those that are in the middle. They pass, but we don't get points for them. We've got to move them up into the proficiency to be able to get that point. So we're trying to take all of those things into account, and depending on how the model works with us for next year, yes. Our goal is always an A."
Dillon said, "All the low hanging fruit has been picked in Petal. There's not a lot of low hanging fruit, so from the accountability piece, you have to look at all the boxes and all the areas that you can maximize. Knowing the challenges with growth and what that's going to mean to our district, we've got to capitalize and maximize on the others."
Wright said MDE did not track changes in districts that may have gone from A to B from PARCC to MAP because the state was still under a wavier and districts were able to keep their highest for a number of years. However, she said even top performing schools have room for improvement.
"Keep in mind that even your top performing district scored 745 points out of 1,000, so each of these components have to be looked at separately in order to know where is it we need to do better," Wright said. "Take college and career readiness. You've got the percentage, and now just look at your A districts, ranging anywhere from only 41.6 of the students to as high as it looks like 60.6. So you've still got a wide range even with just in that component alone for improvement."