VWSD Board member speaks on state education accountability model

Published 8:20 am Saturday, September 24, 2022

The Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) is set to publicly release school district letter grades for the 2021-2022 school year this coming week.

Despite the prominence of the grades in the public discourse of the state’s education system, the way in which those grades are calculated is not widely understood.

After the standardized test scores from all the school districts in the state have been tallied, MDE distributes them on a bell curve to assign letter grades to districts. This means a certain percentage of school districts will automatically receive a failing grade, no matter their test scores.

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Sally Bullard, the outgoing District 5 representative and Vice President of the Vicksburg Warren School District Board of Trustees said, “(The bell curve) guarantees 14 percent failing districts in our state, a state that has one of the poorest education (systems). And the state developed a system to purposely fail 14 percent.”

Bullard explained that she thinks the motive for using the bell curve is to financially benefit wealthier communities at the expense of poorer ones. While the letter grades are not directly tied to the funding of schools, they do affect the local tax base of a school district, which in turn affects local funding for education.

“It is guaranteed to make the wealth continue to distribute (to wealthier communities). Because, as you know, a better school district is where people want to live, or where businesses want to build. Let’s just say Vicksburg (gets) an A rating. That would mean people would want to live in Vicksburg, potentially,” she said. “It then changes the economics of our state, and people don’t want it to change.”

The job is made more difficult, Bullard said, because districts do not know what scores need to be achieved in order to make a particular letter grade. Schools are given a target number, but it is inevitably changed by MDE after tests are taken.

The proficiency levels of individual students are a major variable in calculating the final scores. The proficiency level of a student, based on test scores, is broken down into five tiers, one through five; five being the highest proficiency level. Bullard said that how those scores are weighted unfairly awards students who are already performing well. A student who stays at a five is awarded the same points as a student who moves from a one to a three.

“All three of my kids were raised in Vicksburg, and all three of my kids were fives. But the thing is, they came into the school system that way, as kindergartners they were that way,” she said. “But if you’ve got the kid down the street who’s got a learning disability, and he’s a one or a two and he moves up to a three, well, that’s a much bigger job. It’s a bigger job for the teacher. It’s a bigger job for his family. Everything about it is a bigger job. But it’s still the same percentage points given to that child as what’s given to my child.”

Chad Shealy, Superintendent of VWSD, echoed Bullard’s views on the scoring system in a recent interview.

“To reward those that start the game on third base… is a disservice to a lot of educators in the State of Mississippi,” Shealy said. “There are a lot of (teachers) that go back to their hometown, which may not be in an area that’s easy to work, and they pour their heart out and they get huge gains and great progress. And then they’re measured against a system that gives easy points to folks that should already be getting it right.”

The Vicksburg Post will post the letter grades for the Vicksburg Warren School District when they are made available next week.