Mississippians should celebrate the improvements in school accountability grades but also understand they say very little about the current state of public education.
No matter where you live in Mississippi, there is a good chance your local school district improved its “grade” on the Mississippi Statewide Accountability System this past year.
Accountability grades released by the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) in the fall show that 87% of districts are now rated “C” or higher—up from 70% in 2019, the last time MDE released accountability grades. Sixteen districts managed to improve by at least two grades (such as “D” to “B”), including two districts which improved by three grade levels.
Mississippians should celebrate the unprecedented improvement demonstrated by school and district accountability grades for the 2021-2022 school year. We should also understand these grades tell us very little about the current state of public education in Mississippi—and that we still have substantial progress to make on our promise to provide students with a world-class educational system.
Just weeks after MDE released accountability grades, the U.S. Department of Education released national and state-level results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP—a biannual exam administered to a representative sample of 4th and 8th graders across the United States to measure student achievement in reading and math. There was a notable contrast between the unprecedented improvement in Mississippi’s accountability grades and our regression in NAEP scores, a trend seen nationwide.
Across the country, math scores fell by the largest amount on record to levels not seen since the early 2000s. Reading scores did not fall quite as much in point value, but they are now on par with scores in 1992. Though Mississippi had emerged over the past decade as demonstrating some of the highest NAEP gains in the nation, our 2022 state scores were similarly dismal, with the notable exception of 4th grade reading scores, which remained essentially unchanged from three years prior.
These massive declines in student performance, often referred to as “learning loss,” can of course be attributed to COVID-related school disruptions in the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 school years. But this doesn’t explain the simultaneous improvement in district grades.
In short, the discrepancy between NAEP trends and district grades comes down to the role of student growth and how accountability grades are calculated. While NAEP only measures student proficiency, MDE determines accountability grades using a number of measures, primarily student proficiency as well as student growth using results from Mississippi Academic Assessment Program (MAAP) exams.
As many expected, students performed very poorly on MAAP exams in 2021—a school year racked by closures, distance learning, and other pandemic-related disruptions. Statewide proficiency rates fell by 12.3 percentage points in math (47.4% in 2019 to 35.1% in 2021) and 6.7 percentage points in reading (41.6% to 34.9%). The bottom 10 districts in math proficiency each had rates below 5%. Considering the extraordinary circumstances, MDE opted not to calculate accountability grades in 2021, and districts retained their 2019 grades (statewide testing had been canceled altogether in 2020). Strangely enough, districts would actually go on to benefit from poor performance in 2021, as extraordinary declines created the opportunity for extraordinary student growth in 2022—a key component in accountability grades that were to be calculated for the first time in three years.
When students took MAAP exams in 2022 they demonstrated significant growth from the year before, even if scores were similar to—or even lower than—pre-pandemic levels. But student growth boosted their accountability grades nonetheless: of the 16 districts that improved by at least two accountability grades from 2019 to 2022, all but two actually declined in proficiency in at least one subject during this time. One of the districts that improved by three grade levels—Claiborne County, which improved from an “F” to a “B”—posted lower proficiency rates in three of four subjects (math, history, and science).
Administrators, teachers, parents, and other community members should understand that the supercharged levels of growth in 2022 will be difficult or impossible to sustain in 2023 without supercharged proficiency rates. There will likely be some growth in proficiency statewide, but districts with generally low or only slightly improved proficiency rates will see their accountability grades decline, some significantly.
In other words, stakeholders should be wary of reading too much into their district’s current accountability grade. Long-term success will ultimately be dependent on a district’s ability to wrestle with its challenges—from achievement gaps to teacher shortages—rather than resting on its laurels. Confronting these challenges is never fun, but it remains necessary to fulfill our promise to the children of Mississippi.