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The joke continues for public education in Mississippi

Newspapers work to include a myriad of subject pieces to attract readers. For some, there is news, while for others the attraction might be a story about gardening or a piece about this year’s football prospects — or, my favorite, the comic page.

Usually, these components are grouped in their own sections, but, every now and then, the editors play a joke on the reader. Such was the case with The EAGLE on Aug. 19.

As I read the paper, I paused to do the crossword puzzle and scan the cartoons, thinking that the next page or two would be classified ads followed by a page of sports.

Lo and behold, so soon after laughing at the comic strips, I turned to the next to the last page and found — more comics!

The headline from the surprise was this: “Vote delayed on new A-to-F scoring scale for high schools.” There followed 16 inches of text reporting that Mississippi education leaders may reset “part of the grading scale for schools for the third year in a row.” It went on to say that the State Board of Education had voted to delay deciding on a new scoring scale for high school A-to-F grades.

It seems that the system that would have been followed this year (for its first time) would have resulted in few A-rated high schools but many F-rated ones.

Now that, dear hearts, is high comedy — unfortunately, it is of the bizarre and slapstick variety.

As someone pointed out, resetting the scale is unpopular with folks who argue that it creates a “moving target for improvement efforts.”

State Superintendent Carey Wright slammed such thinking as being unrealistic to expect the state’s accountability to be “set in stone.” Duh? At that point, some board member should have asked to see her high school diploma.

Only high school ratings are the issue this time. For some unknown reason, grading of the districts themselves, the elementary and middle schools will require further meetings by the Board of Education to be held next week.

A significant part of the confusion is the result of the state administering three different tests in a row. Last year’s reset was ignored and schools were able to stick with earlier grades, revealing that 50 of the 238 high schools in Mississippi are A schools.

Now, I’m as proud of my home state as many people are, but that sounds like load of horse fodder. In that evaluation, only four schools were given a failing grade. (Ditto horse fodder!)

If last year’s reset had gone into effect this year, the scoring would yield seven high schools getting an A and 60 getting an F.

“It’s not about the number of A’s, B’s, C’s, D’s and F’s in the districts,” was the judgment of the Chief Accountability Officer Paula Vanderford. “It’s about ensuring that the assessment data is an accurate reflection of how students are performing in the classroom.” (While you’re checking the Supe’s high school diploma, be sure to check Paula’s.)

It isn’t difficult to pen a list of things that are clearly a problem in our public schools. One might start with the interference of a legislature committed to abolishing public education so nonprofit academies will get most of our funding.

One could also reexamine that contract the State signed a year or so ago with a new testing company to produce and manage state testing. And one might also review the amount of time spent — read that “wasted” — in test preparation on class time.

One last thing one might do: Ask for a summary of districts that have been taken over and headed by conservators.

When districts fail, the state takes over the systems and puts someone there to run things. Rumor is that when one such failed district was set for such a change, no one was willing to take on the herculean task.

In the end, an administrator from North Dakota was given the task. One can only wonder at the educational culture shock he experienced.

So, where does poor ole Mississippi go from here? A careful analysis of where we are might reveal that the hole we’re in has no opening for escape, but we do have educated citizens who might get off their couches, go to school board meetings, learn what’s happening to our children and start demanding improvement.

T.J. Ray is a retired professor of English at Ole Miss.