By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

One day after the Mississippi Department of Education released its new school accountability ranking model, schools across Northeast Mississippi already were turning their attention to next year.

“That is the beauty of the system,” incoming state superintendent Tom Burnham said, noting that continued improvement is required.

In the new rankings, which were released Monday, schools and districts were ranked in one of seven categories, from highest to lowest: Star, High Performing, Successful, Academic Watch, Low Performing, At Risk of Failing or Failing.

The rankings were based on state standardized tests and student improvement over the previous year. In some cases, graduation or completion rates were counted.

Unlike previous years, when schools and districts were compared to state averages, the new system uses national norms as the standard.

Even though Northeast Mississippi had seven districts and 30 schools ranked either Star or High Performing, work has already begun toward improving or sustaining those rankings.

In part, that is because the new rankings are being phased in over a four-year period. One of the criteria, the test-based Quality Distribution Index, will be higher next year than it was this year.

For instance, this year schools needed a QDI of 200 to be Star schools. Next year, they will need a 214.

The QDI is based on the percentage of students who score basic, proficient and advanced on their standardized tests.

Growth matters

“Overall we’re pleased, but truthfully we’ve got to do better to stay where we’re at next year,” said Bill Hamilton, director of curriculum and testing for the Oxford school district. Oxford was ranked High Performing.

Another challenge will come in meeting academic growth requirements, another factor in the ranking.

Based on previous test scores, the Mississippi Department of Education determines what each student must score on the next year’s test in order to demonstrate one year of learning.

The aggregated total of students scoring above and below their expected scores determines whether schools or districts have met their growth goal.

Thus higher performing districts must do more than maintain their test scores. They must demonstrate that each of their students has benefited from a year of instruction.

“It really encourages differentiated instruction,” said Corinth Superintendent Lee Childress, whose district was High Performing.

School administrators are still trying to gain a handle on how to anticipate growth.

“We really don’t have a history to measure by,” said New Albany Superintendent Chuck Garrett, whose district was also High Performing. “It’s easier to anticipate QDI.”

The Tupelo Public School District received an Academic Watch ranking, in part because the district failed to meet its growth target.

The district posted a message on its Web site and sent a phone notification to parents Sunday night telling them that the district recognizes that work must be done and student achievements must be improved.

“We need to increase the consistency throughout the district of how we design lessons for students,” Superintendent Randy Shaver said.

That will include making classes more rigorous, adding 21st century technology like laptops for students and auditing its curriculum to be sure that what is being taught lines up with what is being tested.

Leaders of the Lee County School System, which received a Successful ranking, said they are taking steps to improve its graduation rate and to improve pacing guides to make sure that students at all of the district’s schools are being taught the same things.

The district also will work to improve its two schools that were At Risk of Failing, Plantersville and Shannon Middle School.

“Even though we have a couple of schools At Risk of Failing, when this time next year comes, there will be proof that we’ve done some of the right things at those two sites as far as staffing is concerned and as far as the use of data and interventionists are concerned,” Superintendent Mike Scott said. “I think you’ll see some big improvements at both of those sites.”

Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or at

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