Community must fix school perception

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Come September Mississippi won’t be able to cover little Jenny’s black eye with makeup anymore.

Her flaws and the flaws of all of her classmates in 152 school districts are going to be shared with the world. And it’s not going to be pretty.

Mississippi’s top educators have known for years that statewide academic achievement and curriculum weren’t up to par with the nation.

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Sure, 80 and 90 percent of fourth-graders were scoring proficient and above on the all-important state tests.

But the tests were our tests. And somewhere along the way, we made them easy.

When our students took a national standardized test in 2007 the numbers told a different story. Only 21 percent were proficient and above in fourth-grade math. Only 10 percent succeeded in fourth-grade reading.

State Superintendent Hank Bounds has been working to correct the problem for several years. Two years ago the state rolled out a new, more rigorous curriculum. Soon after came the Mississippi Curriculum Test 2 — a more difficult version of the old MCT.

Students took the new test in 2008, but since it was new, state officials didn’t change overall school rankings that are calculated based on test scores.

Students took the test again this spring, and this time the scores count.

Only, with the new test, comes a new accountability system.

Gone are the days of ranking Mississippi schools by levels 1-5. Now schools will receive one of seven labels — star school, high performing, successful, academic watch, low performing, at risk of failing and failing.

And some state educators fear that only one Mississippi school will qualify as a star school next year.

The number labeled “at risk of failing” or “failing” may be more than 100.

The new labels are a public relations nightmare for school districts.

In reality, the scores are no worse than they’ve been for the last several years, in fact, they may even be better.

But the new scale and new labels will make it more difficult for schools to achieve “successful” status.

What used to be a “Level 3 — Successful” school could now easily be an “at risk of failing” school. And when that label is slapped on your school, parents, teachers and community members surely can’t help but gasp.

We don’t yet know what type of label the Natchez-Adams School District will receive in September. But the public needs to remember this year will be like comparing apples to oranges, or maybe even comparing apples to peanut butter sandwiches.

The change in testing, scoring and labeling is a necessary one. Mississippi has to catch up with the rest of the country.

But catching up can’t be done overnight.

The Natchez-Adams County Chamber of Commerce’s Education Committee — composed of business leaders and the top man or woman at each local school — met most of the day Tuesday designing a plan of action that will one day mean that Natchez has a “star school.”

On the road to having a star school, the committee, of which I’m a member, believes we must all work together to change the perception of our public schools.

Changing perception for the schools starts with wiping off the makeup. They are doing that. Changing perception for the community means opening our eyes, ears and minds to the truth, not gossip.

Our schools aren’t perfect. But they won’t get better without all of us working together.

Julie Cooper is the managing editor of The Natchez Democrat. She can be reached at 601-445-3551 or