MDE's Low Bar Inflates School Grades

By Aaron Rice
September 10, 2012

We all want our public schools to succeed. But what, exactly, does "success" mean?

In a few days the Mississippi Department of Education will release the ratings for public schools and school districts in our state. For the first time ever, schools and districts will be graded A, B, C, D, or F.

Under the system in place for the past few years, the labels assigned to schools and districts were misnomers. For example, most people would likely consider a "Successful" school to be among the best. But that was not the case in Mississippi. "Successful" was the third category from the top.

Under the new system, Successful schools and districts will more accurately be labeled "C."
Even though the labels will now be clearer, the method used to determine the ratings leads to highly suspect results.

Consider the most recent modification to the ratings formula. This past July, the State Board of Education decided to disregard graduation rates when assigning school ratings. If this policy had been in effect this past year, 12 districts would have earned a High Performing ("B") grade instead of a Successful ("C") grade. Another 48 high schools in nearly 40 districts would have received a higher rating than deserved. The Jackson County School District, Lee County School District, and Scott County School District would have each had three affected high schools. DeSoto, Itawamba, and Webster would have each had two.

Even more troubling is the Board's repeated refusal to implement the school rating, or "QDI," scale it approved back in 2009. That year, the Board established a performance rating scale that would move Mississippi toward the national average. The current scale makes it far too easy for schools to earn a top or, even, middle performance rating. The policy shift represented a tacit acknowledgement that what is now being called an "A," "B" or "C" school in Mississippi is not as good as other equivalently rated schools across the country. In attempting to increase the performance scale, the Board initially set the bar low, putting in place a plan to ratchet up the scale each year for four years.

In 2010, the Board postponed implementation of the new, higher performance scale. The next year, they delayed it again -- for at least two years. To this day, the new scores are not being used. The reason for the delay is obvious. Too many schools would fall too far down in the ratings. So instead of bumping the new scale up so as to correspond with national averages, the decision was made to keep the bar low.

Had the scale increased as planned, a number of so-called top performing districts would be perceived in a much different light today. The DeSoto County School District and the Rankin County School District, for instance, would have seen their 2011 rating fall from High Performing ("B") to Successful ("C"). At the school level, DeSoto County would have had only 1 Star ("A") school instead of the 10 reported. Rankin County would not have had a single Star school, instead of the 4 actually reported. Similarly, the Forrest County School District, the Hattiesburg Public School District, and the Petal School District would not have had a single Star school. The same holds true for the Lafayette County School District and the Oxford School District. In fact, the latter two districts combined would have had only 1 High Performing school.

When the school and district ratings are released in a few days, it's worth keeping in mind that while changing the way we label schools is a good first step, what we really need is a more accurate and transparent method of calculating the scores represented by these labels. A new, transparent formula will give parents and taxpayers a clearer picture of their schools' performance.

Handing out As and Bs might make us -- and our school administrators -- feel good about ourselves, but it's not doing any favors for our kids.

Trenton Winford is a research analyst at the Mississippi Center for Public Policy.

12 School Districts with Low Graduation Rates Earned a "Successful" Label (2010-2011)
Forrest AHS
Hancock County
Lafayette County
Lauderdale County
Neshoba County
North Tippah
South Tippah
Scott County
Webster County

18 High Schools with Low Graduation Rates Earned a "High Performing" Label (2010-2011)
Amory HS (Amory)
Corinth HS (Corinth)
D'Iberville Senior HS (Harrison)
East Central HS (Jackson Co.)
East Webster HS (Webster)
Gautier HS (Pascagoula)
Hancock HS (Hancock)
Itawamba AHS (Itawamba)
Kossuth HS (Alcorn)
Lafayette HS (Lafayette)
Long Beach Senior HS (Long Beach)
Mooreville HS (Lee)
Morton HS (Scott)
Saltillo HS (Lee)
SE Lauderdale HS (Lauderdale)
Senatobia Jr/Sr HS (Senatobia)
St. Martin HS (Jackson Co.)
Vancleave HS (Jackson Co.)

30 High Schools with Low Graduation Rates Earned a "Successful" Label (2010-2011)
Bruce HS (Calhoun)
Eupora HS (Webster)
Faulkner HS (North Tippah)
Forrest County AHS (Petal)
Franklin HS (Franklin)
Greene County HS (Greene)
Greenwood HS (Greenwood)
Grenada HS (Grenada)
Gulfport HS (Gulfport)
Horn Lake HS (Desoto)
Lumberton HS (Lumberton)
North Forrest HS (Forrest)
Nettleton HS (Nettleton)
North Pike Sr HS (North Pike)
NE Jones HS (Jones)
Noxubee County HS (Noxubee)
Pine Grove HS (South Tippah)
Potts Camp Attendance Center (Marshall)
Richland HS (Rankin)
Ripley HS (South Tippah)
Scott Central Attendance Center (Scott)
Sebastopol Attendance Center (Scott)
Seminary HS (Covington)
Shannon HS (Lee)
Shaw HS (Shaw)
Southaven HS (DeSoto)
Starkville HS (Starkville)
Tremont Attendance Center (Itawamba)
Warren Central HS (Vicksburg-Warren)
Wayne County HS (Wayne)


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