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Miss. Board of Education reworks school ratings after federal demand to emphasize graduation

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JACKSON, Mississippi — Mississippi is reworking its rating system for school districts and high schools after federal officials demanded the ratings put more weight on high school graduation.

The state Board of Education voted Friday to seek public comment on the revised rules, which would apply beginning with this year's ratings. Those ratings will be released this fall using testing and graduation results from the current school year.

State Superintendent Carey Wright said that when officials prepared to submit the new rating system for federal approval, U.S. Department of Education officials warned Mississippi that they would reject any system where high school graduation rates didn't account for at least 20 percent of all points. Mississippi's original plan called for graduation to count for less than 10 percent of the points used to calculate A-to-F grades.

Staci Curry, a liaison to the U.S. Department of Education, told state board members Thursday that federal officials indicated they would reject the model because of insufficient emphasis on graduation rates.

"It was quite clear there's no way they were going to approve our accountability model" Curry told board members.

The state had developed the grading system through months of meetings. It was based on what, at full implementation, would have been an 1,100-point scale, with 11 segments including graduation rates each counting for 100 points.

Mississippi has in the past run separate grading systems to meet state and federal requirements. But with support from the department, the Legislature passed a law requiring the state to unify the systems. In part because of that requirement, state officials concluded they had no choice but to rejigger the proposal.

"My takeaway is we really did not have an option," board member John Kelly of Gulfport said Thursday.

Paula Vanderford, who oversees accreditation, said that the federal officials could have restricted aid to Mississippi if they had rejected the grading system.

"It could lead to earmarking or withholding of federal funds and increased monitoring," she said Thursday.

The new system will have 1,000 points, with graduation counting for 200 points. It will cut to 50 points the following four components: scores on the state U.S. history exam, scores on the state biology exam, ACT test scores and accelerated classes.

Projections show that a heavier weight on graduation rates could shift some schools out of the F category into the D category. Using last year's test data, D-rated high schools would climb from 29 percent to 35 percent, while the share of F-rated high schools would fall from 18 percent to 12 percent.

Wright said that overall, the shares of grades wouldn't change much. In both cases, almost half of the state's high schools could be rated D or F.

"The distribution looked very similar," Wright said Thursday. "If anything squished the bell-shaped curve a little closer to the middle."

The department didn't release projections for district-level ratings. Because many components of a district rating are based on things that only happen in high schools, district ratings are very dependent on high school ratings.


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