September 21, 2020

What does future hold for Natchez-Adams School District?

NATCHEZ — One year after the Natchez-Adams School District received a failing accountability grade, test scores set to be released this month could put the district at risk of a state takeover. Mississippi school districts are given accountability grades based on academic achievement.
The Mississippi Department of Education records show four of the eight elements that constitute a district’s grade are test scores, particularly those on English language arts, science, U.S. history and ACT tests.
Accountability scores have, historically, been used to gauge the growth of a district. This year, however, the scores can also be a red ag for the Mississippi Department of Education, thanks to new rules passed in the 2017 legislative session.
Senate Bill 2431, signed into law by Gov. Phil Bryant, mandates, in part, that any school found to have failed its accountability exam in two consecutive years or two of three consecutive years “may be absorbed” by the state.
In short, the state has legal authority to take over any district which fails its accountability exams twice in three consecutive years. Zandra McDonald, deputy superintendent of the Natchez-Adams School District, said she and her colleagues became aware of the new rules after they were passed earlier this year.
“For the 2016-2017 school year, we established a goal that schools would demonstrate marked growth in all subject areas,” McDonald said. “Therefore, our central focus is on showing improvement throughout the district.”
Rosemary G. Aultman, chair of the Mississippi Board of Education, said scores are not the sole measurement of success in a school district, but test results have significant weight.
“(Scores) play a very large role in accountability grades because they are a barometer of the overall academic program in a school system,” Aultman said.
The Natchez-Adams School District received an “F” last year on its accountability grade. In fact, NASD has failed four of the past ve years. The year the school did not fail, the 2014-2015 school year, it received a D.
The average ACT score for the Natchez-Adams County School District, which also factors into the district’s accountability score, was a 15.4, nearly three points below the statewide average. Walt Drane, executive director of student assessment for the Mississippi Department of Education, said the accountability score is designed to highlight growth toward proficiency by each student.
“Assessments play a big role in the accountability model and growth is a main driver,” Drane said. “We want all students to reach proficiency and graduate on time.”
Of the 1,000 points available for districts in their accountability scores, more than 700 points come from scores and growth from students in the lowest 25 percentile. In the 2015-2016 school accountability rating, NASD scored 457 points.
Senator Robert Dearing, who represents Adams County among other counties in District 37, said he was not thinking of Natchez when he voted for the new rule.
“The law is pretty clear,” Dearing said. “If they fail two years in a row, they’re given the opportunity to pull up their scores. If not, the governor has the option of taking over the district.”
The rules came into effect on July 1, 2017, meaning any history of failure in the district is of little consequence. This year’s scores are the first that could send the district into the hands of the state.
If Natchez-Adams fails
If the district fails this year, a state takeover is not guaranteed. Were that the case, 18 of Mississippi’s 144 school districts — more than one in 10 — would this year be at risk of being taken over.
“You have to look at the capacity the department has to take over a district and whether or not they’re able to take them over at the same time,” Aultman said.Where possible, Aultman said she prefers districts to solve their academic problems internally. “What we would hope would happen is districts will look where their weaknesses are — where they have their lowest scores — and put together a plan internally to address their academic deficiencies,” she said.
Where possible, Aultman said she prefers districts to solve their academic problems internally. “What we would hope would happen is districts will look where their weaknesses are — where they have their lowest scores — and put together a plan internally to address their academic deficiencies,” she said.
Aultman said in the case of an internal solution, the Department of Education would help school districts initiate training programs for both students and teachers to help raise scores. If the state does take action, however, the Natchez-Adams School District would join two other districts currently under the state’s control, Tunica County School District and LeFlore County School District.
Mississippi first passed a law that allowed the state to take over a failing district in 1991 and, in the years since has taken over 19 school districts. In order for the state to overtake a district, the Mississippi Department of Education must make a recommendation for intervention which is then sent to the governor.
If the governor agrees and signs the recommendation, the school is in the hands of the MDE. The most recent school to be recommended for state intervention was Jackson Public Schools. A takeover of the second largest district in the state was recommended by the State Board of Education last month. Gov. Bryant is currently considering the board’s recommendation regarding the Jackson Public Schools.
Takeovers, Aultman said, usually include the state appointing an interim superintendent or conservator to create an improvement plan and lead student and teacher training programs to improve academics in the district. “They work under the direction of the state department, but it’s primarily people who are hired for contract work,” she said.
Mississippi takeovers last, on average, two to three years, but have been known to last up to six years, as in the case of the first Tunica County takeover. Tunica is one of three districts that has been absorbed by the state more than once in the 26 years since the takeover legislation was passed.
If Natchez-Adams passes
If Natchez-Adams School District receives a passing grade this year, it is still not quite out of the woods. The recommendation to take over Jackson Public Schools wasn’t initiated by test scores, Aultman said in her letter, but because the Department of Education saw fit to declare the district in a state of emergency.
Aultman wrote in a September letter that a state of emergency is declared when a district fits into any one of three situations: the safety of students is jeopardized, the district fails its accountability exam two years in a row, or that more than 50 percent of schools in the district are rated as ‘F’ schools.
Last year, five of eight schools in Natchez-Adams County failed their accountability performance reports, putting it at risk of being declared in a state of emergency. When a district risks being declared in a state of emergency, Aultman said, again, the state looks for an internal solution first.
“The department sits down with the leadership in the district and goes through their findings and they have an opportunity to develop a corrective action plan saying they’re going to address deficiencies,” Aultman said. “The department works with them in helping address those deficiencies.”
Aultman said the decision to take action after the state department has aided a district in creating a corrective action plan is based on “how quickly (districts) get that in place and how they respond with a sense of urgency moving forward.”
The 2016-2017 student test scores will not be released until Oct. 19, but school districts receive preliminary reports from the state early. McDonald said Natchez’s preliminary reports showed a number of improvements that she said was the result of careful strategy.
“That preliminary data also highlights that there are still some challenge areas and validated that some administrative decisions made at the end of the 2016-2017 school year were necessary,” McDonald said. The Natchez-Adams School District, McDonald said, faces some particular difficulties in raising test scores, such as outdated technology.
“Yes, we are in need of upgrades to our system,” McDonald said. “Yet, we continue to work to ensure that our students have the resources they need in order to be successful.”
Though test scores are a primary factor in gauging the success or failure of a district, Aultman said it is ultimately district leadership that often decide the future of a school system. “It’s all about the leadership of the district,” Aultman said, “and whether or not they’ll sit down and put together a plan.”