News

Mississippi sets new score levels for A-to-F school grades

Posted September 15

— Mississippi's public schools and districts have a new scoring system in place for assigning A-to-F grades after a series of dustups that started last month.

The state Board of Education approved the system Thursday, clearing the way to release the letter grades on Oct. 20.

The dustups began when officials with the Mississippi Department of Education proposed a plan to assign A's to 8 percent of school districts and assigning F's to the bottom 20 percent of districts. That was a much tougher recommendation than the one made by a task force of school administrators, which called for 15 percent of districts to get A's and 13 percent to get F's.

The subsidiary Commission on School Accreditation, in a show of independence, rejected the Education Department's recommendation and instead sent the task force plan forward to the state Board of Education.

The board agreed to something of a compromise, saying it would assign A's to 10 percent of schools and Fs to 14 percent.

Officials said the letter grades will be derived from either a 700-point or 1,000-point scale that would be set after all scores were finalized, and said each grade will not be assigned to a fixed percentage of schools each year, as some educators had feared. Points will determined based on test scores, growth in test scores, ACT college exam scores, the share of students taking accelerated courses and graduation rates.

"The districts will once and for all know we've changed to a numeric value and there will not be confusion any more about changing to percentages," state Superintendent Carey Wright said Thursday. "They'll be able to know what their goal is."

In future years, schools and districts that reach those point levels will be assigned those grades, regardless of the percentages of A's and F's.

State officials also said they would count the highest ACT score achieved by students through February of their senior year, after superintendents complained that the department appeared to be saying it would only count the ACT score from juniors.

School grades are a high-stakes decision, because after two years of failing marks, the state could take them over. The ratings will also designate C districts where students can leave to attend charter schools elsewhere.

Advocates complained that the board planned to grade on a curve, limiting the number of districts that could get A's and forcing some districts to be graded as failing no matter what their actual achievement levels. The Jackson school district sent a letter to all employees urging them to weigh in against this approach. The board received 139 comments opposing grading on a curve, a huge number compared to the handful that a typical public comment period brings.

"I am incredulous that any educators would consider any rating system as artificial as this new system appears," wrote Harrison County school district employee Debbie Brann. "I can't imagine that any one of you would willingly allow your child to walk into a classroom that specified how many A's would be earned before a single item had been taught."

Opponents also included a number of district superintendents, Mississippi Professional Educators, the state chapter of the NAACP, and Claiborne Barksdale, who has led his brother Jim Barksdale's philanthropic effort to improve literacy in the state.

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Follow Jeff Amy at: http://twitter.com/jeffamy. Read his work at http://bigstory.ap.org/author/jeff-amy

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