What's Their Grade: School district heads respond to scores
by Kevin Pearson and Denise Strub
Sep 15, 2013 | 990 views | 0 0 comments | 2 2 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Ratings for Mississippi public school districts were recently released by the Department of Education using the state’s A-to-F grading system for their 2013 performance.

Top grades became more plentiful in the second year of the rating system, boosted by new calculations using graduation rates.

However Bolivar County School Districts were shown in the lower half of the scale.

Benoit School District moved from a D in 2012 to a C in 2013, as the Cleveland School District.

The Mound Bayou School District maintained its C score.

North Bolivar School District and Shaw School District dropped from a D to an F and West Bolivar School District stayed at an F.

In a written statement, Cleveland Supt. Dr. Jackie Thigpen said school district officials are pleased with the score improvement.

“CSD met and/or exceeded the state average in QDI and four year graduation rate. We attribute these successes to the implementation of professional learning communities, Singapore math teaching strategies and outstanding teachers, administrators and all staff members working hard every day to reach all students.

“Even though we take a moment and celebrate our success, we realize that we must continue to strive to educate and empower all students to excel. Our goal for the upcoming school year is to continue to strive to be an A rated school district,” wrote Thigpen.

North Bolivar Supt. Jesse King said he was prepared for the rating but it’s something he has been working on since he became superintendent two years.

King explained he knew there was a problem with reading in the district and this year brought in a reading specialist with the Odyssey Reading Program.

“We’re being proactive in addressing these issues,” he said, adding that his district may be the only one in the area to offer pre-kindergarten classes.

King added he believes there will be much improvement next year when his district will merge with the Mound Bayou School District.

The consolidation of districts was mandated by Mississippi Legislature to take affect in 2014.

Also merging will be West Bolivar School District, Benoit School District and Shaw School District.

“I think this will be beneficial for the district,” said King, who added that joining forces would allow for more programs, like community clubs, and services to students, such as AP classes.

“One of the misnomers is that we don’t offer these classes because were derelict but it’s so hard with a small student population,” he said.

The Benoit School District, which moved from a D to C, is also preparing for the future merger by putting its students on a Common Core path.

“I don’t think (the merger) will have a large effect on us,” said Benoit Supt. Dr. Beverly Culley. “We’re very proud of our students, teachers, staff, assistant staff and school board.”

William Crockett, Mound Bayou School District superintendent, said, “I’m actually not too pleased. We had an increased rating in the elementary school from a C to a B but we didn’t get the high school to move up so it left us at a C rating overall.

“I’m really satisfied with the elementary school but disappointed with the high school. We have some improvement plans that we’re working with and also some after school programs to help raise the rating.”

The acting Shaw Supt. Sheila Brown said, “From my observation, the high school turnover rate is one of the major factors. We also have a new principal, which could be part of it.

“We’re working with the principals and curriculum coordinator to make sure that the children who didn’t score proficient on state tests receive interventions to address the proficiency in Math and Language Arts.”

West Bolivar School District’s Supt. Henry Phillips said, “We are very, very disappointed. We thought that we had done better and now we’re making every effort to look at what happened last year so we can alleviate the problem and make it better.”

The Sunflower-Drew School District, which was recently combined into one school district, received a rating of D.

Sunflower was previously rated as a C and Drew was formerly rated as an F.

There were 19 A-rated districts in the 2012-2013 school year, the state Department of Education announced Friday. That compares to three A-rated districts in 2011-2012. The number of A-rated districts would have risen to 10 even without the inclusion of graduation rates, but nine districts would have just missed the cut as high-ranking B's saw high graduation rates put them over the top.

"It just so happened that you had all these bubble districts who had also been working on graduation rates," said James Mason, the state's testing coordinator.

F-rated districts fell to 15 from 20. And for the first time since Mississippi began using its current standardized tests, there were more districts on the top two rungs of the rating system — 60, than on the rungs now rated D and F, 51.

Before the switch to A-to-F last year, Mississippi used a 7-step system running from a high of "star" to low of "failing" to rate its 151 districts.

"I know there are people who are going to say we've got too many A's," said interim state Superintendent Lynn House. "We've had a lot of districts that are doing really great things."

More than twice as many districts saw their grades rise than saw them fall.

Of the seven districts under state takeover, three saw their ratings improve — Tate County rose to B from C, Oktibbeha County rose to C from D and Aberdeen rose to D from F. State-run Sunflower-Drew, North Panola and Hazlehurst maintained a D rating, while Indianola remained mired at F.

Ratings will only improve over the next two years because of how the state has structured a three-year transition to a new curriculum, tests and rating system. Districts will administer the current standardized tests in spring 2014, while teaching a curriculum based on the new Common Core standards. They will be evaluated under a new rating system that will still produce A-to-F grades.

In 2015, districts will for the first time administer new tests based on Common Core, multi-state standards that are supposed to encourage more analytical thinking.

In 2014 and 2015, districts will be able to adopt new grades if they're higher, or keep their current grade. In 2016, grades based on the new tests and evaluation system will count for all districts and schools.

House said she expects a substantial drop in scores under the Common Core tests. But she said the transition to Common Core comes at the right time, saying a rising share of high-rated districts means the state should tighten requirements.

"I think it's appropriate to talk about raising the bar," House said. "The new accountability system and state standards are going to work to push us higher."

Better grades mean potential charter schools may have a narrower field of action in Mississippi over the next few years, at least. Under the law passed earlier this year, charter schools can't open in a C-rated or higher district without approval of the local board.