How state grading during COVID devastated a district

Laurel School District students doubled in proficiency in math and are making steady growth in English
By: | March 22, 2021
The Laurel High School Lady Tornadoes won the school's first state basketball championship in March. (Laurel School District/Facebook)The Laurel High School Lady Tornadoes won the school's first state basketball championship in March. (Laurel School District/Facebook)
Superintendent Toy L. Watts

Superintendent Toy L. Watts

Laurel School District leaders felt confident their school system was on the verge of shedding its F rating from the state of Mississippi—and then COVID hit.

During the 2019-20 school year, first semester testing and other district data showed students were making substantial progress. But when COVID cancelled spring 2020 testing, Laurel’s students did not have a chance to show the growth, Superintendent Toy L. Watts says.

Mississippi issues district grades every year but just recently, it announced it would carry over the grades districts received for 2017-2019, which left Laurel with its F rating.

“All of our numbers indicated we were well on our way to being in the C range, maybe even a B at the high school,” says Watts, who was hired by the district in 2018 to turn academic performance around . “When they decided to the retain scores from ’18-’19 it was a serious blow. It was devastating.”

The district’s data showed students doubled in proficiency in math and we’re making steady growth in English. Watts says the state should have refrained from issuing grades this year.

Still, Watts says she has contacted the state board of education, her legislators and state superintendent groups to convince the state not to retain the district grades from two years ago.

She’s now concerned her students are losing ground again because of COVID’s disruptions, and  some of the progress could be wiped out.

Blow to morale

The F grade saps district morale, particularly considering Laurel’s educators felt they had finally moved the needle on student achievement, Watts says.

For instance, the graduation rate at Laurel High School has risen to 90% from 76%.”It’s been a nightmare for us to have to retain scores,” Watts says. “It’s going to impact teacher retention because the grade labels them and it labels the kids.”

The low grade also makes it harder for the district to hire new administrators and teachers, Watts says.

“We have more affluent areas near us,” she says. “The grade makes it hard for us to convince people we’re doing a good job.:”

Moving forward, the district wants to ensure students recover learning time lost to COVID’s disruptions. Watts and her team are now planning a comprehensive, four-day-a-week summer school program that will expand what has been offered in past years.

“It’s not just going to be the meat and potatoes,” Watts says. “We’re adding the fun stuff, like choir, music and band—all the specials activities.”

The district will use federal stimulus funding to increase summer school pay to encourage teachers to apply. As for the state grade, Watts says she going to “take it into my own hands.”

“I will work with our in-house data people to put our own information out there,” she says. “We’ll tell them we know our children have grown.”