July 21, 2012 8:52:40 PM
Mississippi joined more than half the states in the nation this week, when it was granted a waiver from the most challenging aspects of the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act.
Local school superintendents say it's too soon to tell how much the move will benefit Mississippi children. It breaks the grip of a legislative mandate under which many, if not most, schools were destined to fail.
The brunt of educators' ire over NCLB focused on the requirement that all students -- including non-English speakers and those in special education -- score 100 percent proficient or higher on state accountability tests by 2014. But in 2011, the Mississippi Department of Education reports, only 50 percent to 66 percent of students in grades 3-8 scored proficient.
The law had staggering implications for states like Mississippi, where schools were already struggling and many districts, like Oktibbeha County, were at risk of failing last year. Starkville and Columbus city school districts were placed on academic watch, while Lowndes County ranked as high-performing.
As Mississippi districts transition to the more rigorous Common Core Curriculum, test scores were likely to drop even more over the next two years.
The penalties worried Starkville School District Superintendent Dr. Lewis Holloway. Under NCLB, districts which didn't test 100 percent proficient would undergo a five-step process of remediation, with the most drastic step resulting in restructuring the schools, laying off faculty and hiring an entirely new staff.
"If they leave the law the way it is, every school district (in the nation) will fail, it's just a matter of when," Holloway said Friday, adding the negative stereotypes of disinterested faculty are a false representation of the attitudes in most districts, which want to improve. "The people that know the issues best, you're going to remove them all and replace them?"
Oktibbeha County School District Superintendent James Covington said the push for Mississippi to receive a waiver from NCLB shows a determination by state lawmakers to remove the state from the bottom of education rankings.
Districts still will be required to create college and career-ready standards and submit to accountability standards and perform teacher and principal evaluations. And each district still will have to figure out a way to make its schools show adequate yearly progress.
"We're determined to move this train forward, it's just going to take a little time," Covington said.
Proponents of the waiver, like state Interim Superintendent of Education Dr. Lynn House, hope it will give Mississippi districts a chance to develop more aggressive plans for turning around consistently low-performing schools through more effective teaching and incentives for student growth, as demonstrated through meeting math, reading and language arts targets.
"The waiver ultimately creates flexibility for public education in Mississippi," House said Friday. "It will allow us an opportunity to institute better practices in our schools and make a difference in the lives of our students."
It will also aid districts struggling to meet NCLB requirements despite ever-dwindling federal dollars. Statewide, school poverty rates hover at 62 percent, but city and county schools in Lowndes and Oktibbeha exceed those rates.
Adhering to NCLB costs more, but districts are receiving at least $5 million less than they received five years ago, Holloway said. Even more frustrating is a shifting set of what constitutes high standards.
"The concept was a lofty goal, but the management of it was, in my mind, way off base," Holloway said.
He said though he was in favor of accountability and making sure all children make a year's progress within a year, the current testing structure weighs a child's intelligence more than the quality of instruction.
A new online assessment will be piloted in 2014 and 2015, but won't be fully implemented until 2016.
Rather than wait, Starkville city schools will begin offering an adaptive test that allows students to log in and answer questions that get progressively harder, then scales back the difficulty when the student begins giving wrong answers.
For $13.50 per child, the schools will be able to develop an individualized strategic plan for each child's success.
Initially, Holloway thought Starkville would roll out the online assessments in grades K-3 this year and others later, but he said he may move forward with the tests in grades K-8 this year.
States have until Sept. 6 to request a waiver.
Columbus Municipal School District Superintendent Dr. Martha Liddell and Lowndes County School District Superintendent Lynn Wright did not respond to requests for information regarding how the waiver will change education within their districts.
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.
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