Vicksburg Warren School District Superintendent speaks on state accountability model, letter grades

Published 2:41 pm Friday, September 16, 2022

The Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) is set to publicly release letter grades for Mississippi public schools and districts on Sept. 29.

In anticipation of the release, this will be the first in a series of articles published by The Vicksburg Post exploring the inner workings of the Mississippi Statewide Accountability System, which is the formula MDE uses to assign those grades.

The model for calculating letter grades is not widely understood. Chad Shealy, Superintendent of the Vicksburg Warren School District, said he is not shy with his criticisms of the model. There are multiple, but as an example, he explained the system by which growth and proficiency of schools and districts are measured.

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“When you talk about the accountability model, in and of itself, it’s not a bad tool. It’s just being used inappropriately,” Shealy said.

MDE assigns a letter grade of A through F to schools and districts throughout the state based on a number of factors plugged into a formula, which is detailed in an annually published document called the Mississippi Public Schools Accountability Standards.

The letter grades are largely based on factors MDE calls “growth” and “proficiency” as they apply to individual students. Each student, based on standardized testing, is assigned a “growth” or “proficiency” level. Those levels are then used to determine the overall performance of a school or district.

The calculation of “growth” and “proficiency” is problematic, Shealy said, because it creates a skewed view of underachievement for lower-performing students.

The proficiency level of a student is broken down into five tiers, one through five; five being the highest proficiency level. Those tiers are further broken down into eight tiers called growth levels that are in the following order: 1a, 1b, 2a, 2b, 3a, 3b, 4, 5.

Growth points are then assigned based on a student’s movement within or maintaining a position at these levels. Those points are then used in the formula to assess letter grades.

Shealy said that the points system for determining the growth of a student is heavily weighted in favor of higher performing students, and as such, it favors districts with said students.

For instance, a student in the number four growth category that moves to the fifth category based on testing would be assigned 1.25 growth points. A student that maintains a position in level five would also earn the school 1.25 points. However, moving a student from the lowest position at level 1a to level 3a earns the school the same 1.25 points. A student that moves from 1a to 2a gets the school only one point. Shealy explained that moving a child up in that lower range requires much more from both teacher and student than the upward movement or maintenance of higher levels.

“I don’t care how many opportunities you give someone in a wheelchair to run a race, it doesn’t make any sense to not consider the fact that they’re at a disadvantage. So we have this improbable move (from 1a to 2a) that you get one point four,” he said. “Treading water (at 5): that’s a 1.25. In addition to that, the four to five is also a good bit easier than moving from a 1a to a 3a.”

Essentially, Shealy said he feels the improvements made by students in the lower performing levels are underweighted when compared to the improvements made by higher performing students.

“Moving this (1a) child to the next level is an immense lift. But you get your one point for that. However, almost all of our advanced kids are advanced the whole time they’re here,” he said. “Most of our kids that are advanced, stay advanced.”

The student growth and proficiency points, once run through the formula approved by MDE, produce the letter grades based on not scores alone, but on what is essentially a bell curve that distributes those grades throughout the state.

Derrick Johnson, who was State President of the Mississippi NAACP and is now President and CEO of the national organization, wrote an open letter in 2016, shortly before the adoption of the current model, to Walt Drane, the Executive Director of the Division of Research and Development at MDE. In it, Johnson outlined his own concerns about the soon-to-be adopted accountability model. One of those concerns was the use of the bell curve for letter grades.

“According to the proposed policy’s forced bell curve, even if all districts attained the highest possible test scores, academic growth, and graduation rates, 14 percent of them would still be assigned an F. Likewise if all districts sank to the lowest possible performance, 10 percent of them would still get an A. This approach to rating schools discourages collaboration among school districts; for a district to move up a level, another district will have to fall,” Johnson wrote.

Despite Shealy’s criticisms of the accountability model, he said it is still one of the tools the District uses in its assessment of policy and effectiveness.

“It is what it is. It’s a snapshot of what occurred, and we figure out what happened right and what happened wrong. We do a reflection review of individual standards each year and try to replicate the things that work and get rid of the things that didn’t,” he said. “I don’t mealy mouth a lot about the accountability model, even though it is very, very, very discriminatory, in my opinion.”