Superintendents speak out about school rankings

Published 4:26 pm Friday, September 14, 2007

Schools within the Picayune School District, Pearl River County School District and Poplarville School District all received rankings of level three or higher from the Mississippi Department of Education.

Level 3 is considered fully accredited. Schools below Level 3 receive additional attention from the Mississippi Department of Education.

The classification levels range from a 1 to a 5, and are based on results of statewide performance testing. Level 1 is low performing, 2 is under-performing, 3 is successful, 4 is exemplary and 5 is superior. Accreditation rankings of all the school districts and individual schools in the state were released last week.

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The statewide tests are given in grades 3 through 8 for language, reading and math. High school students are tested in Algebra I, Biology I, U.S. History and English II. The tests are also used to determine a school’s Adequate Yearly Progress as mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind accountability plan.

Picayune School District Schools all received a Level 3 classification, with the exception of Roseland Park Elementary School, which was rated a Level 4. Picayune Junior High did not meet adequate yearly progress in reading or language, while Picayune Memorial High School did not meet that requirement in reading.

Picayune Assistant Superintendent Brent Harrell said in an interview Wednesday that while Level 3 is considered a successful school, the district is not satisfied with just being successful.

“We always want to be a Level 4, and preferably a 5,” Harrell said. “It’s disturbing to (our teachers) that they are not a Level 5.”

Harrell said the district is constantly working to improve their ratings, by changing guidelines, teaching methods, and curriculum to better meet the student’s needs and to better prepare them for state testing.

“We’re in the process of developing a comprehensive plan. We intend to hire a consultant to help us assess our needs, and we will provide professional development for all of our staff,” Harrell said.

Harrell said while the tests are intended to determine a student’s progress, and the progress of the school from one year to the next, he does not believe the testing system is an accurate measurement.

“(The testing) does not adequately reflect progress. It reflects what students are doing at one moment in time. (Our scores) did not reflect that our Algebra I students at the junior high are among the top 10 in the state. The whole picture is not there,” Harrell said.

Pearl River Central High School received a Level 3 classification while PRC Junior High and Upper Elementary both received a Level 4 classification. However, PRC High School was the only school in the Pearl River County School District to meet adequate yearly progress in all three subject areas. The other schools in the county district only met the requirement in Math.

PRC School District Superintendent Dennis Penton said in an interview Thursday that his administration is working on making changes to improve the test scores.

“I’m not satisfied. Our district, our administration, and our teachers are not satisfied. We’re in the process of hiring a curriculum director who will help us rework our curriculum to target state and national standards. We’re also working toward a system of district testing that will target the state testing,” Penton said.

The district testing, Penton said, will be in addition to regular teacher testing to monitor student progress.

“We’re installing several safeguards to help us improve, class by class, grade by grade, student by student,” Penton said.

Penton also said that the state test scores are not necessarily indicative of the school’s achievements, because state testing is a “quantitative measure”, meaning it deals strictly with numbers.

“There are a lot of qualitative measures that (state testing) does not show. For example, our graduation rates are up, and our ACT scores are up,” Penton said. “Some schools that scored low are excellent schools. There are a lot of variables to why a school may score high or low.”

When asked if he thought the overcrowding situation at the county schools would affect the test scores, Penton said it could have an effect, but he would not call it a cause.

“I’m not going to use the overcrowding as an excuse, but it could be a contributing factor. A combination of things can cause a rise or a fall on a state test. We want to put things in place, to minimize the effect of outside variables,” Penton said.

When asked about adequate yearly progress, Penton said the requirement is determined by a number of factors such as graduation rate, attendance, and growth status from one grade to the next. When the students are tested each year, they are expected to meet a level of knowledge within a certain range. If a student falls within that range, they are credited with being successful, Penton said.

Poplarville School District received Level 4 classifications for the Upper Elementary and the Middle School. Poplarville High School received a Level 5 rating. All the schools within the district also met adequate yearly progress.

Poplarville Superintendent Carl Merritt said in an interview Tuesday that he is proud of the school district.

“We did well, and I’m proud. It all goes back to expectations. We all have expectations that we know we have to meet. We look at it as a challenge,” Merritt said.

However, Merritt said even though the district did well in the testing, there is always room for improvement.

“We’re not satisfied. We don’t ever want to be satisfied. We always want to improve,” Merritt said. “We’re trying to be aggressive. We’re requiring more from students. Not so much recall, but problem-solving and critical thinking.”

Merritt said the district is working to identify areas that need improvement, but credits the district’s success with what he calls “the Three C’s – cooperation, commitment, and communication.”

“We have a clear communication (to the students) of what we expect. … We are taking a conservative and unified effort to stay on top,” Merritt said.

One question to all three districts was about the Growth Status requirement that was not met by any of the schools in the county, with the exception of Poplarville High School.

Penton explained the Growth Status requirement as similar to adequate yearly progress in that it deals with the number of students that move from one level of performance to another.

“To meet growth status, we have to move a certain number of students to another performance level,” Penton said. Penton listed the levels as minimum, basic, proficient, and advanced.

Harrell said Picayune’s performance in Growth Status requirement is one reason the district is hiring a consultant.

“Growth Status is a prediction of where a student should be from one year to the next,” he said.

Merritt, Harrell, and Penton all said that they do not want people to think that the schools are competing against each other, but rather working together to improve all the schools within the county.

“We’re not competing with other districts,” Penton said. “We’re trying to reach our goals. Each community and district has a different set of circumstances, but we are all shooting for the same target — to produce successful students.”