State approves ratings for special schools over complaints

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JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi's state Board of Education on Thursday approved A-to-F school ratings for a school district, plus four schools that teach special populations, despite complaints that the rating system treats them unfairly.

Officials told the board Thursday that under their interpretation of state and federal laws, the state must rate those schools using the same tests and standards as other schools. The board had delayed action on those schools in October when it approved grades for others.

Corinth got a C overall and its high school was rated F. However, other measures, such as ACT scores and graduation rates, suggest the district performs like higher-rated districts.

"We do not believe it is an accurate reflection of the achievement and growth of our schools," said Superintendent Lee Childress. His district focuses on preparing students for the international Cambridge exams and not Mississippi's state tests.

The state also gave failing marks to the Mississippi School for the Blind, Mississippi School for the Deaf, and schools in the Harrison County and Pascagoula-Gautier districts that serve only special education students.

None of those special schools had ever been rated before, and the state had once agreed to develop an alternative rating system for Corinth, which uses a special curriculum and tests. However, state Chief Accountability Officer Paula Vanderford said the state determined in April that it would be illegal for the state to continue with either policy.

"There are no exclusions in state or federal law for assigning grades to schools that have special populations," she said.

State school board member Johnny Franklin of Bolton, the only board member who voted against the decision, said it's punitive both to schools that seek to be innovative and that are already challenged with students who are blind, deaf or have severe disabilities.

"They've got enough challenges as it is without us going and handing another thing around their neck, and that's an F," Franklin said.

Childress disputes the state's legal interpretation. He notes that the waiver granted to Corinth to allow it to adopt a different curriculum, a modified year-round schedule and other changes is the same law the state cited in refusing to develop an alternative assessment. And in some other states under the current Every Student Succeeds Act, individual school districts are choosing among different types of tests.

Corinth has earlier gone to court to try to block the grade, but Childress said it was likely the local school board would choose to appeal to the state Commission on School Accreditation. Turning first to such administrative remedies could give Corinth better grounds in a later court appeal.

Childress said he hoped the district and state could resume work on getting the Cambridge exams approved, but said the district is taking measures to better prepare students for state tests. He said the low grades won't undermine Cornith's efforts to "do school differently."

"We do not think it will undermine it in any way," he said. "Our commitment to Cambridge remains strong."


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