MSSD’s low grade on state report card reflects tumultuous transition
By Logan Watson
The Tennessee Department of Education released it’s district report cards for the 2015-16 school year last week, and the scores for the Milan Special School District were less than satisfactory for Director of Schools Jonathan Criswell. The MSSD received a Level 1 rating from the state, the lowest score possible.
“Overall, the scores are very disappointing,” said Director Criswell. “This data is a snapshot of a time when there were numerous changes occurring, but it is what it is, and we’re going to move forward to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
The MSSD’s Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS) scores ranked uncharacteristically low in 2015-16, with the district earning a Level 1 score in Numeracy and a Level 3 score in English/Language Arts. Milan traditionally does well in these areas, having been ranked a Level 5 school for the 2014-15 and 2013-14 school years, but a number of factors contributed to the dismal scores.
“The MSSD was in the middle of a big transition last year,” said Director Criswell. “We were dealing with transitions between teachers, principals and the Director of Schools. It was a lot to process for our students and our staff.” While Director Criswell was adamant that his statements not be misconstrued as excuses for the district’s poor performance, he did say that he felt sure that the scores were an abberation and not a trend that would be repeating itself next year.
“Stability matters, and there was a lot of uncertainty last year,” Criswell explained. “There are a lot of small changes that need to be made to accommodate this new testing system (TNReady). Those small adjustments simply were not made last year. I’ve equated it to our faculty and staff practicing for a soccer game all week, then trying to play a football game on Friday night.”
Problems with TNReady, from both the state and local aspects, played a large role in the drastic drop of the MSSD’s rating. Due to the lack of testing materials and glitches with the online testing platform, Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen suspended TNReady testing for grades 3-8 in April of this year.
With more than half of Milan’s students not being tested, the district’s report card was scored using only grades 9-12 and the 8th graders that took the Algebra exam. Also left out of the equation were the MHS Science and History TVAAS scores, which earned a Level 5 ranking, meaning that students tended to grow more in those subjects than their peers across the state.
While failing to test all of the students certainly paints a less than accurate portrait of the MSSD’s growth in the areas of literacy and numeracy, whether or not the district would have received a higher grade was still up in the air, according to Director Criswell.
“That’s a hard speculation to make,” the superintendent said, pointing out that even though there was no data to pull from for Milan Elementary and Milan Middle, the results from the MHS testing were still below average. Among the MHS students tested under the TNReady program, only 30.7 percent of them scored in the proficient or advanced tiers, approximately 5-10 percent lower than the surrounding districts. In the Math portion of the TNReady exam, only 10.9 percent of MHS students and 8th grade Algebra students scored in the top two tiers, scoring 20-30 percent lower than other districts in our area.
In an attempt to remedy the problem before the end of the school year, Director Criswell stated that all MSSD principals would be challenged to increase academic expectations, motivate students and tie teacher evaluations to performances.
“We are going to be stressing ‘teaching to mastery’ rather than teaching to the test,” said Criswell. “We want our students to know the material well enough that they can apply what they’ve learned to any test and have those skills translate to a variety of situations once they leave high school.”
The Director also stated that it is important for students and teachers to be equally invested in the learning process.
“Players play hard for coaches that they like,” said Criswell, “and students work hard for teachers that they like. We want our students to know that we care enough about them to push them; to drive them to success. Consequently, as a district, we’re not going to keep average teachers. Our goal is to have our teachers’ evaluations reflect student achievement. You taught it, but did they learn it? We want that to be reflected in achievement data.”
While the MSSD’s report card grade was not up to Director Criswell’s standard of “Milan Awesome”, there were some corrections that Director Criswell stated needed to be made by the Department of Education. According to Criswell, the percentage of Highly Qualified Teachers (a teacher possessing a bachelor’s degree, full state licensure and has submitted documents to prove competency in the content area) in the district released by the Department of Education is incorrect and has been appealed. The percentage currently shown on the report card is 94.6 percent, when, in reality, 98.5 percent of Milan’s teachers are classified as “Highly Qualified”. Director Criswell also stated that he has appealed the state’s proposed number of Economically Disadvantaged students in the MSSD. For the last three years, that percentage has hovered in the area of 61 percent, but 2015-16 data released by the state has Milan’s ED percentage had been set at a staggeringly low 5.5 percent, then raised to 25.3 percent the following day. Director Criswell stated that the number, which is tied to directly certified students and not based on the number of students receiving free and reduced lunches, should be in the area of 36-40 percent.
Criswell also touted the MSSD’s attendance and graduation rates. Attendance in the Milan school system is the highest in the area and MHS has one of the six best graduation rates in the entire state.
“We had a perfect storm of problems facing us last year,” said Director Criswell, “but as we go into this year, our teachers know what the testing format looks like, and our students have some sample questions they can practice. If this happens again next year, we would have a problem, but I’m confident that our teachers will be able to make those needed adjustments and we will see success at this time next year.”
“There is a tradition of excellence that has been set in Milan,” said Director Criswell, “and that tradition will continue on. I’m excited that my sons have an opportunity to be a part of the Bulldog family and I have no concerns about the quality of education they’re going to receive.”