/State education board to decide on the ‘ridiculous,’ ‘ludicrous’ rule hurting a Delta school district

State education board to decide on the ‘ridiculous,’ ‘ludicrous’ rule hurting a Delta school district

Nonprofit Mississippi News. A dispute over school code for accountability has given a Delta school district an F rating. Some, including state board members are questioning whether there is a problem in the way Mississippi Department of Education officials communicate with local school districts. Some say the problem is semantics. It follows a separate mix up this summer about the state’s communication with districts regarding teacher licensing requirements, which could have serious consequences for hundreds of educators’ jobs. A long-running legal battle between the department and the Corinth school district over accountability ratings is still ongoing. The superintendent called it “an unjustifiable dark eye” because the department has not communicated expectations. The latest dispute about Mississippi’s school grades and fairness is being fought by the North Bolivar Consolidated Schools District, which is asking the state to review the rules governing how such districts are rated. Officials from North Bolivar appealed to the state for an inaccuracy in graduation rates, which negatively affected their accountability rating. Officials from the Mississippi Department of Education disagreed and stated that the district had not followed the correct steps and couldn’t alter the results because they didn’t like them. In this instance, who is right? It all depends on who you ask. In September, the state board approved school ratings for 2018-19. Although districts are permitted to appeal grades, the state board ultimately decides whether to maintain the ratings. The problems in the Delta district began in August 2018, when John F. Kennedy High School, Mound Bayou, and Broad Street High School, Shelby were combined into Northside High School. All seventh- to 12th-graders in the area attend Shelby’s high school. Maurice Smith, North Bolivar superintendent, wrote to the department on Sept. 16, “MDE informed me that when schools combine to form new schools, the new school receives graduation rates from the district.” Unfortunately, this did not happen. John F. Kennedy had a graduation rate of 82.5 percent, while Broad Street had a graduation rate of 77.5 percent. The 2018-19 academic year saw the graduation rate for the school district equal to the average of the two high schools, which was 80 percent. The graduation rate of Northside High School, which was consolidated recently, was 77.5 percent. Smith claimed that this was unfair because the school district received an average grade, while the high school received a lower grade. “Do not dismiss the 250 students who attended John F. Kennedy High school. Smith stated at the meeting that Smith should give them the graduation rates they deserve and earned. This is going to have a huge impact on our school environment as well as our community. They earned those points.” Smith also stated to the board that Northside has a lower graduation rate than the overall district, which dropped it from a D rating down to an F. MDE officials disagreed. MDE executive director for district and school performance, Alan Burrow, stated that districts are not allowed to reverse their decisions because they don’t like the accountability results. “The department believes that this is an attempt to manipulate those accountability numbers in order to get D for the high school that was assigned F.” This happened because the district failed to properly request a new code that would include students from both schools. The district was awarded the Broad Street school code graduation rate because all students were moved to the Broad Street building. Smith stated that he followed the instructions of MDE to ensure that both schools’ student performance would contribute to a combined rate. Smith stated to board members that those students shouldn’t be penalized for coding errors. Alan Burrow (MDE executive director of school performance and district) retorted. Burrow stated, “Let’s be clear. There is no coding mistake regarding the calculation of North Bolivar Consolidated Schools District’s graduation rate.” Paula Vanderford, chief accountability officer, stated that if the district requested a completely new school code, her staff and the appropriate program offices would have provided clear instructions to the district about how to create a new MSIS school code. MSIS is the system MDE uses for student and teacher data. The department would have transferred all students to one new school code. Vanderford stated that the reason the transfer didn’t take place was because the district did not request it. Smith claimed that he didn’t know he had to request a new code. He thought his communication with MDE in which he stated “we respectfully request that the district graduation rate be assigned to reflect a true representation” was sufficient. Jim Keith, an attorney for the school board, stated that if they don’t include the score for JFK they are ignoring the effect that those kids had on district scores. “They don’t want to change it because he didn’t use the magic words we need a different code’ that would be absurd,” Vanderford said. Vanderford stated that accountability scores are applied to schools the next year regardless of whether there have been reconfigurations or redistrictings that take place in the summer following testing. “So now do we go back to change all the grades? MDE officials and North Bolivar officials disagreed about how Smith should have approached requesting JFK’s inclusion in the 2018-19 consolidated results. Board member Karen Elam asked if the department was clear in describing what consolidated districts must do in such situations. We’re going to be seeing more consolidation. Elam asked, “Do we need a policy that…holds them better to guide their way?” “The department isn’t fulfilling its duty to provide this guidance.” Elam said. Board members agreed that they would address the department’s business rules regarding consolidated schools and accountability in order to clarify how schools are graded. The board also voted to resend the appeal to the Commission on School Accreditation. North Bolivar was initially denied the appeal. The commission met on Oct. 22 and had a lively discussion in which members questioned whether it was fair to assign the school a certain graduation percentage because the district didn’t know what rules they needed to follow. “I believe it’s our responsibility do the right thing for the district. So just because a rule is written on paper doesn’t mean it’s right. Sarah Foster, a member of the commission, stated that she thinks the entire conversation is absurd. The commission voted 5-4 to keep its original decision to reject the appeal of the district. This decision will be reaffirmed by the state Board of Education. North Bolivar will continue to be an F, and Northside will maintain the lower graduation rate if the board denies the appeal. John Paul Mistilis, a member of the commission, stated that he believes we penalize too many schools because they do little bitty stuff. “But rules are rules.”