One of the more endearing characteristics of life in Northeast Mississippi besides a deep commitment to friends, family, and faith is the way some people use idioms to describe complex subjects. All across Mississippi, school districts are getting ready for the school accountability letter grades that will be released by the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE).
As the superintendent of the Tupelo Public School District, I am grateful for the Daily Journal in their editorial on June 30th encouraging people to keep state testing in proper context. I am reminded of one of my favorite idioms I recently heard from a new friend in Tupelo, “That cat’s got a longer tail.”
Large scale assessments, when used properly, can improve teaching, learning, and equality of educational opportunity; however, it is important to recognize what the state letter grades are and what they are not. According to information taken from MDE’s website, the letter grade designations represent how well students are performing in math and English language arts and whether or not students are making annual expected growth in math and English language arts as measured on state assessments.
The letter grades do not measure how well an individual student or teacher is doing or take into consideration other things the school may be doing well, such as meeting students’ emotional/social or health needs or how well students are performing in other subject areas. The state assessments are a series of tests given at one point in time in an entire school year.
Our internal calculations of achievement data in English language arts and math released from the Mississippi Academic Assessment Program (MAAP) suggest our principals, our teachers, our support staff, and our students did an outstanding job last year. We have reason to celebrate all of our schools and students. While we have many reasons to celebrate, we also have many reasons to focus our efforts on areas of greatest need.
Our greatest opportunity for growth is with our students who have special needs, our students for whom English is a second language, and our students who live in poverty. These students must take the same assessment that is given to all students, and their scores factor more heavily than other students into the final letter grade given to every school and district.
The Tupelo Public School District believes it is in the best interest of our students to use the MAAP results as an opportunity to increase our sense of urgency and commitment to excellence. Given the challenges faced by many of our students and hard-working educators, the letter grades do not represent our students or the totality of our schools. Our students and schools are more than a letter grade.
The MAAP results represent our best efforts as an educational community and the State of Mississippi to educate all students. We own these results. It is unfortunate that we haven’t yet figured out a way to measure academic achievement and communicate results without unfairly labeling schools and students.
As the superintendent of the Tupelo Public School District, I am encouraged about the future because I see many successes every day. Last week, I spent time in some excellent classrooms. I watched a highly trained teacher teach a lesson using comparison and contrast. I watched a class full of beautiful students with special needs focus on their teacher as she read a great book about friendship.
I am excited about Project Search, Project Lead the Way, the Middle College, our CTE programs, our fine arts and athletic programs, and the many other exciting and academically challenging opportunities that are offered in all of our schools. The Mississippi accountability model is a very complex calculation that labels schools with letter grades in an effort to inform parents about the quality of schools. But like my friend from Tupelo said, “That cat’s got a longer tail.”
When the letter grades get officially released from MDE, we will celebrate and then focus on the hard work of getting all children to higher levels of academic achievement for the new school year. I am encouraged about the future because I have faith in our principals, our teachers, our support staff, and our students.