The current of method of ranking Mississippi's schools and districts has its limitations.
The Mississippi Statewide Accountability System awards letter-grade rankings based on a number of factors, although it is heavily weighted toward student performance on state tests. That means the way we judge our schools is largely based on how well students perform on one test on one day of a 180-day school year.
Certainly there is some value to having state assessments. Educators need data on how well students are performing to be able to determine what skills students have mastered and which ones they haven't. It helps them better adjust their instruction and assure that individual students are not falling through the cracks.
The problem is when an accountability model overemphasizes those test results. The public largely determines whether a school is good or not — whether it is an "A," ''B," C," ''D" or "F'' — based on how students perform on one test one day of the year. Many other factors of school success — enrichment programs that go beyond the curriculum, teachers who truly care for their students, vibrant extra-curricular programs — are ignored.
Such a model pushes educators to focus more on the tests and less on the factors that don't get measured. It encourages "teaching to the test" and endless drilling and practice tests to ensure students are going to score highly enough to give the school the highest letter grade.
It doesn't have to be that way.
As state lawmakers prepare to come together for another legislative session, they once again have the opportunity to change the school ranking system. The best approach would be a collaborative one that engages educators, the business community, community leaders, parents and others on a model that measures what's truly important. It should begin by answering a fundamental question — what do we want a graduate to look like — and work backward from there. It should find creative ways to holistically measure school performance.
Meanwhile, communities shouldn't wait on the Legislature either. While they'll continue to be measured by the state accountability system until the law changes, what's to stop individual communities from coming together to develop their own accountability models that are far more accurate evaluators?
If a wide array of stakeholders could come together and agree on the defined criteria, communities can use their individualized ranking systems that carry more weight than the one that comes from the state.
It's an opportunity to move away from a top-down education approach. It's a chance for districts like Tupelo and Lee County to work together with local leaders to become a model for the rest of the state. And it's a path to escape the trap of teaching to the test.