MDE changes cut scores once again

Published 9:04 am Saturday, August 19, 2017

On the same day test scores for the 2016-17 school year were officially released, the Mississippi State Board of Education voted Thursday to change the accountability cut scores for the second straight year.

The vote followed a recommendation by the Commission on School Accreditation Tuesday to reset the baseline cut scores for schools to be assigned letter grades. The cut lines for 2016-17 were originally set using a bell curve based on the scores from the 2015-16 school year, which placed a certain percentage of schools into each of the five letter grades.

Instead of using the cut scores established by the percentages to determine this year’s accountability letter grades, the state board voted Thursday to once again use the percentages to determine cut scores. The new cut scores will not be released until October along with the accountability grades.

“When you take the bar, they don’t tell you we can’t tell if you passed or not until we see how many people took the test because 25 percent of you all are going to fail regardless of what you scored on the test,” Vicksburg Warren School District Board of Trustees president Bryan Pratt said. “That is not how you would do it in the real world and that is not how you should be doing it in education.”

A similar decision was made by the state board last year, which moved the VWSD from a C to a D, despite the fact that the district reached the cut score they were told to target before the 2015-16 school year began. 

“We set our strategic score around a 486; we scored a 499,” VWSD superintendent Chad Shealy said. “We were a C. When they made this arbitrary percentage move, they have it to a 523, which made us not a C even though we had a 72-point gain in one year. That was huge for our district.”

The move last year paid dividends for schools at the top of the metrics, while punishing VWSD and other districts in the middle and lower. Shealy said before the change was made last year, there were zero districts rated as Fs and only four rated as As. After the change was made, there were 19 F districts and 14 A districts including Clinton.

“It is all driven by economics and not by the children,” VWSD board of trustee member Sally Bullard said. “The state board is not making decisions based on kids. They are making decisions based on economics and real estate and they will make sure Clinton and Madison and Rankin County continue to be As.”

Pratt added that, “The communities that went down and are now getting to go up are also the communities that have money. The districts that are not going to get up, or get pushed back down are the districts that don’t have money.” 

This year, there were expected to be 12 F districts and 7 A districts using last years cut scores. The changes would have created 21 F districts and 14 A districts, but which districts fall into each category has not been made public.

“They just keep moving the mark further and further away,” Shealy said. “We have a lot of teachers that have worked very hard to do the things they have done. When you move a cut score, you haven’t changed the performance of a child.

“What they have in essence done in the state is, the people that were in the top 50th percentile in those rankings, they’ve given them another gift two years in a row.”

As part of Thursday’s vote, the state board decided to assign the letter grades for this year based upon the highest score each district would have been able to receive using either the original 2016-17 cut scores or the new baselines that will be established using the percentages. The grades that would have been received using both systems will be released though.

The new baselines will then be used to determine the letter grades following the 2017-18 school year.

“The Board’s decision comes after a great deal of thoughtful deliberation and consideration of what is in the best interest of all districts, schools and students,” Rosemary Aultman, state board of education chair, said in a release. “We recognize that all districts are working incredibly hard to improve student achievement and that letter grades inform the public about school and district performance. One of the Board’s goals is for every school and district in the state to earn a “C” grade or higher, and we are committed to helping all districts achieve this goal.”

State board member Johnny Franklin, who represents Warren County and all of Supreme Court District 1, voted against the changes Thursday.

“You tell folks and we set the expectation last year and then just before we decide where folks landed on those expectations we wanted to change,” Franklin said. “I don’t think that is the way you should do things.

“I used the analogy, it is like telling a kid in high school you’ve run the hurdles all year long and we set the hurdles at 20 inches high. You get to the state meet and because everybody has had good times all of a sudden we say oops we are going to change that. We are going to raise them to 25 inches.”

Because this is the second straight year the cuts have been moved late in the process and with the new cut scores not even being released until October, Shealy said it is very hard to plan and trust that this won’t happen again.

“It is very difficult to put any trust in those metrics after that point. You have to begin to internalize that we are doing what is right for the kids regardless of what adults choose to do,” Shealy said. “We are doing things that nobody else is doing in the state. We are making opportunities for children that are unlike any other opportunities you’ll find. We are getting that work done despite the things that are done to us.”