Charter schools: Fairness of grades questioned

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Many charter schools earned grades for the first time this year. Some question whether they’re fair.

Most charter schools across Mississippi performed on par with their local districts for this year’s accountability scores, though some officials say the system used to assign grades should be modified for these kinds of schools. 

Charter schools are free that do not report to a school board like traditional public schools. Instead, they are governed by the Mississippi Charter School Authorizer Board. They have more flexibility for teachers and administrators when it comes to student instruction, and are funded by local school districts based on enrollment.

Accountability grades are based on state test performance and other metrics. Charter schools, like all public schools across the state, received grades for the first time this year since 2019. For multiple charter schools, this is the first time they have ever received a letter grade. 

“When we’re talking about the success of a charter school, we’re looking at the whole package,” she said. “We’re looking at their academic health, their financial health, their organizational health over a period of time. So to take one snapshot and say they are or they aren’t (succeeding), I don’t think that’s quite a fair way to look at it.” 

In Greenwood, Leflore Legacy Academy Director Tamala Boyd Shaw said she tried not to compare the school’s performance against other districts or charter schools. Instead, she focused on comparisons between the results of repeated benchmark testing the school administered internally. 

Shaw said she anticipated the D grade Leflore Legacy received based on the state testing data released earlier this year, but still took issue with it. Since the school did not yet have students taking the state test in science, it altered the way their accountability score was calculated. Shaw said the score the school received did not align with her understanding of the rules for these situations, and she appealed it, unsuccessfully, to the Department of Education.

Shaw suggested the Mississippi Department of Education more broadly reconsider how it grades charter schools, accommodating for the fact that charter schools often add grades each year and other nuances of their expansion. 

Executive Director of Mississippi First Rachel Canter said it can be unfair to compare a charter school to a whole district when they don’t have the right age groups of students to capture data for a number of the accountability model’s components. But Canter still acknowledged the importance of charter schools being graded by the same metrics. 

“It’s important for parents to have some kind of measure that is common across traditional schools and charter schools so that they can assess for themselves in a way that is transparent,” she said. “I absolutely believe charter schools should take the same assessments and they should get the same grades, but those grades are more comparable in years that are normal.”

Midtown Public Charter School, one of the first charter schools to open in Mississippi, earned a D rating this year and ranked 10th of the 13 middle schools in JPS. Kristi Hendrix, the executive director of Midtown Partners, the nonprofit that operates the school, said they were disappointed with the grade they received this year and expected a different outcome based on their internal benchmark testing. 

“We are not where we plan to be academic achievement wise but are making the adjustments in the instructional program for the current students we have in efforts best serve their needs,” she said. 

Midtown Public was also the only school to recieve a letter grade below the local district they operate in. Hendrix said she didn’t feel this was an accurate comparison since JPS serves all grades and thousands more students. 

When pressed specifically about the success of Midtown Public, Karmacharya said it was too early to say how their grade might impact their application for re-authorization. 

“The authorizer is always going to be aware of whenever a school is challenged in whatever that way is,” she said. “(It) is part of our responsibilities, to support them the best we can. If at some point in time a school is unable to demonstrate that they can provide a high quality education option for families and kids, then the board will have to make a tough decision.”

Leaders with RePublic Schools, the group that operates Smilow Collegiate, Smilow Prep and ReImagine Prep in Jackson, said the schools were on track to fully rebound from the pandemic. Angela Bass, the regional executive director of RePublic Schools, said she was pleased with their schools' performance to the Jackson Public School District. RePublic schools ranked fourth and fifth of the 13 middle schools in Jackson, though Bass also emphasized she is excited by the overall improvements JPS is seeing. 

READ MORE: Jackson schools, on verge of state takeover just 5 years ago, earns ‘C’ rating

RePublic’s Jackson Director of Schools Lynzie Smith also drew attention to their schools’ growth scores, which is a measure of how many students improve from one year to the next on state tests. Smith said growth scores at their schools were both high and “on-brand” for what their schools produce each year independent of the influences of the pandemic.

“The vast majority of our kids are coming to school and growing from one proficiency level to another, and we just know that is going to translate directly into proficiency the longer (students) stay with us,” Bass said. 

For Clarksdale Collegiate, which received a D, this was the school’s first time receiving an accountability grade. Executive Director Amanda Johnson said she thought their score would be slightly higher, explaining it was harder to predict what grade they would receive since they added extra students at the beginning of last year. She said she believes it was the right decision, as they had the capacity to add seats and students who wanted to come, but since the students were newer to the school it was less clear how they would perform on the state test.  

Through small group tutoring multiple times a week to close learning gaps and continuous rigorous instruction, Johnson said she expects to be in a much better spot next year as they continue to recover from the challenges of the pandemic. 

“It’s a new experience, but data is always helpful to have, to learn from and grow,” she said.

Ambition Prep and Revive Prep, the other charter schools in Jackson, both did not receive scores this year as they do not have have enough grades of students.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.