Hard work and lots of study time have apparently paid off again for Mississippi’s largest school district.

The Mississippi Department of Education this week announced the results of its Mississippi Accountability Assessment Program (MAAP) testing for the 2017-18 school year and the DeSoto County School District (DCS) again ranks as an “A” district. DCS finished 15th in the state among 18 “A” districts in the program that assesses student progress and growth in areas such as math, science and language arts.

“I am excited that DeSoto County Schools received an “A” rating and that we finished in the top 10 percent of school districts in the state,” DCS Supt. Cory Uselton said after the test results were publicly released Thursday afternoon. “It is definitely a team effort in our school district and I am very proud of the hard work and dedication of all of our teachers, students, administrators and our staff. We want to learn from this test data that we received and focus on continuous improvement in all of our schools.”

At the high school level, four of the district’s eight high schools achieved an “A” grade, led again by Lewisburg and followed in order by Hernando, Center Hill and DeSoto Central. Olive Branch High School just missed the “A” cut and finished with a “B” grade, as did Southaven also come close to achieving an “A” grade. Lake Cormorant High also finished with a “B” grade and Horn Lake High School received a “D” grade.

Of the top schools in the district, Lewisburg is the number two-ranked high school in Mississippi and Hernando was ranked number four among high schools.

Among kindergarten through eighth grade campuses, Pleasant Hill Elementary reflected the best overall score in the county and joined 15 DCS schools with an “A” grade. Nine schools finished with a “B” grade, five schools ended with a “C” grade and one school, Olive Branch Intermediate, was given a “D” grade.

Lewisburg Middle School had to share its number one in the state ranking with Enterprise Middle School, a school located near Meridian. Hernando is ranked number four overall.

One of the schools DCS was especially pleased with in the latest accountability results was Lake Cormorant Elementary School, which earned its first-ever “A” grade after improving its overall test scores by more than 100 points.

“Everything that we did last year was focused on making sure that our students at the end of the year were better than they were when we got them on day one,” said principal Carol Smith. “Academically, socially, behaviorally, whole child, That was our focus.”

Smith explained the school focus last year was called “intentional” and themed through their hashtag “#chompingtowardexcellence.” Another program the school used was called Chomp Time, with the goal of more focused time for students needing help with their studies, she said.

“For 30 minutes a day, everybody shuts down and there’s two adults in every classroom and we have very intentional small group interventions or mediations that went on during that time,” said Smith. “We felt it was important to hit our lowest kids by doing that, but we didn’t want to leave our highest kids out. We started an enrichment group at that same time, too, so we had special things from the lowest to the highest in our building.”

DCS Director of Accountability and Research Ryan Kuykendall, while going through the overall results, stresses what he called “growth results,” which indicate what schools had improved the most over the previous year. Southaven and Olive Branch high schools, while finishing with “B” grades, showed the most growth over the past year. Lewisburg Primary and Pleasant Hill Elementary had the two top growth results among kindergarten-through-eighth grade campuses.

The test results were originally to be released in September but the state Board of Education held off on its release until Thursday when an issue came up grading some schools over the rest of the state, Kuykendall said. He stated that ESSA, for Every Student Succeeds Act, the federal government mandate that replaced what used to be called No Child Left Behind, mandated that every school, no matter the situation receive a letter grade.

“There’s a couple of specialty schools that received a letter grade but because of their set up, they are not able to have points in all of the components,” Kuykendall said. “So, it’s really an unfair situation for those schools. That was the reason that the state board delayed the release. Those schools were actually pulled out today and the board did not approve their results. They’re going to do some more work with those situations and then approve the rest of the results.”

DeSoto County Schools is one of nine districts that have been an “A” district over all three years of the current MAAP accountability model. While Thursday’s results were released publicly for the first time, Uselton said the district has been analyzing the scores for some time.

“Even though we finished as one of the top school districts in the state, we have been studying our test data for months and looking for ways to improve,” Uselton said. “From a district perspective, we want to look at the positives and the negatives. If we see a certain grade level or subject where our test scores are lower than expected, we work with the schools to find out what we need to do differently the next school year.”

Kuykendall, who is also a member of the Accountability Task Force for the state Department of Education, added some tweaks will be done the state board hopes will make the program more fair in the future. Science numbers are already expected to drop statewide next year, not because of performance or rigidity of the work, but because the current science framework will now come under new state standards.

“Overall, we’re pleased that we’re one of nine districts to be an A the three years since MAAP testing has been going on,” Kuykendall said. “We have already begun major emphasis on the low performing students that needs special focus.”

Bob Bakken is Staff Writer for the DeSoto Times-Tribune.

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