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Proponents for giving schools grades say they’re a straight-forward way for parents to evaluate school quality. But a new analysis from the Alliance for Excellent Education reveals that ratings can mask the outcomes for low-performing student groups.

In more than 40 schools in Mississippi that received an A or B rating in 2018-19, students with disabilities performed as poorly, and sometimes even worse, than students, overall, at the state’s lowest-performing schools.

Mississippi identifies schools with underperforming subgroups as part of the state’s accountability plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. But it uses a different system for the school ratings it assigns schools each fall. For these, Mississippi factors in the overall percentage of students scoring proficient or above on state tests and whether their scores increased compared to the previous year. Schools receive additional points based on the improvement shown by students who scored in the bottom 25 percent at their school. When students make significant progress from one year to the next, even if they do not achieve proficiency, the school will receive extra points that may result in a higher rating.

Related: How Mississippi’s districts are separated into have and have-nots

Lindsay Dworkin, who oversees policy development at the Alliance, said the state’s method can send “inconsistent signals” to parents. “It’s confusing to have the state saying, ‘On one hand it’s an A school; on the other hand, there are these huge issues with gaps and proficiency rates are low,’” she explained. “Which of these narratives are parents supposed to believe?”

Dworkin’s colleague, Anne Hyslop, said Mississippi’s next-door neighbor, Louisiana, has taken a step toward more transparency: Schools in the Pelican State can’t receive an A rating if they have a consistently underperforming student subgroup.

Alan Burrow, the Mississippi Department of Education’s executive director of district and school performance, said incorporating the academic progress of the lowest performing quartile of students in state ratings has paid off.

“Since implementing the inclusion of the lowest 25 percent indicator, Mississippi has shown significant gains as evident in our 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress results,” he said in a statement. “The 2019 NAEP results show that African-American, white and Hispanic students from low-income homes in Mississippi achieved higher scores than their peers nationally in all four NAEP subjects.”

Related: Helping rural students thrive

Here are a few more takeaways from Alliance’s Mississippi snapshot:

  • More than 30 percent of schools flagged as having at least one “consistently underperforming” group of students also received an A or B rating from the state.
  • Some F-rated schools could miss out on special federal funds to help improve low-performing schools because they’re not identified as needing extra help by the state system. Forty-three percent of the state’s F-rated schools were not identified for support.
  • In 2019, the average F-rated school in Mississippi was 87 percent black with almost all students receiving free or reduced-price lunch. The average A-rated school was 33 percent black.
  • Schools were more likely to get extra support for students with disabilities whose proficiency lagged behind state proficiency goals than for students in other subgroups with proficiency gaps.

Dworkin said schools are more likely to be identified by the state as needing additional assistance and support to lift the performance of students with disabilities because student proficiency in this group is the farthest from meeting the state’s proficiency goal for all of its student subgroups. To make sure other students aren’t being shortchanged, though, Hyslop said the state could create separate lists to track proficiency gaps for each student subgroup to make sure support is going where it’s needed. Schools with large proficiency gaps in any subgroup — students from low-income families, English language learners, etc. — would then be targeted for additional support.

Right now, state officials haven’t indicated any plans to tweak the ratings system.

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Mississippi Learning newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Monday with trends and top stories about education in Mississippi. Subscribe today!

This story about school ratings was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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Bracey Harris is a staff writer. Before joining The Hechinger Report, she covered politics and education for the Clarion Ledger where she also focused on government accountability for the paper’s investigative...

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