- Associated Press - Thursday, October 20, 2016

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - After a new test and a recalibrated grading system, the typical Mississippi public school and school district rates a C under the state’s A-to-F rating system.

The 2015-2016 grades, released Thursday by the Mississippi Department of Education, are the first in several years that count for everyone. For two years in a row, schools or districts got waivers to use higher grades earned earlier because of changing state teaching standards and tests.

“The state on average is a C in terms of academic achievement and I think that’s a good starting point,” said State Superintendent Carey Wright, noting that higher testing standards are meant to measure Mississippi students against a national yardstick.

At the end of 2014-15, 19 districts had As, 43 had Bs, and none were rated failing. Last year, even though the state adopted another new test called the Mississippi Assessment Program, no waivers were given. Officials had warned that overall scores would fall, and this year, 14 districts got As, while 39 got Bs and 20 got Fs. The grade distribution was similar among Mississippi’s nearly 1,000 individual schools.

Wright said changes are significant enough that grades are hard to compare from year to year.

“When the 16-17 accountability results are released, you’ll have a better picture of how our students are performing, because you’ll have two years of data based on the same assessment,” she said.

Among the districts rated F was 28,000-student Jackson, the state’s second largest, although some elementary and middle schools in the district earned As or Bs.

In the first year of operation for the state’s first two charter schools, Reimagine Prep was rated a D and Midtown Public Charter School was rated an F. Both serve grades 5-8 in Jackson. Wright, who also serves on the separate charter school board, said charters deserve time to show results.

“It takes more than one year to lift a school with that level of attainment,” she said.

Nine districts statewide beat the odds and improved their grades. Greene County climbed from a C to a B, thanks to strong test score growth among all test-takers and among the bottom 25 percent of students in the 2,000-student district. Such growth accounts for 40 percent of a district’s grade.

“We’re still not where we want to be as far as proficiency, but our growth was really good,” said Superintendent Charles Breland, crediting aid from a state-paid reading coach for part of the increase.

The 9,300-student Jackson County district advanced from a B to an A, also thanks to strong growth in test scores, as well as a high graduation rate.

“Our teachers have done an amazing job in helping each kid achieve their potential,” Superintendent Barry Amacker said.

High stakes accompany the results. Schools and districts rated as failing could be taken over by Mississippi’s new achievement school district if they get a second-straight F in the current school year. With the Jackson district’s F rating, the district could have to decide whether to take over the district in its first year, as the new district begins work. There are about 63,000 students in F-rated districts. Higher-rated districts also have individual F-rated schools that the achievement school district could also take over.

“We know that some schools and districts need significant improvement if we’re going to make college and career readiness a reality for all students,” said J.P. Beaudoin, the department‘ chief of research and development.

The ratings also designate D- and F-rated districts where charter schools can locate without local permission, as well as C-rated districts where students can leave to attend charter schools elsewhere.

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Follow Jeff Amy at: http://twitter.com/jeffamy . Read his work at http://bigstory.ap.org/author/jeff-amy .

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