A month after touting an improved graduation rate, the Mobile County Public School System was revealed to have 12 “failing schools” — the most since the Alabama Accountability Act took effect and twice the number reported in 2015.
The same proved true at the state level, with Alabama achieving an 89 percent statewide graduation rate, only to see 76 schools designated “failing” this month.
In its original form, the AAA defined a “failing school” as one listed in the lowest sixth percentile of standardized reading and math scores three or more times in a six-year period. However, subsequent legislation changed the calculation to review tests scores from a single year.
Currently, student progress is measured by Act Aspire in grades 3 through 8 and Plan, which tests high school sophomores. In 2015, 329,233 students took the tests — the second year the state has used a test aligned with Alabama’s “College and Career Ready Standards,” or Common Core.
Most of the 12 schools receiving a failing designation locally were middle schools, but Morningside Elementary School also was included. There were only three “failing” high schools in Mobile County: Lillie B. Williamson, C.F. Vigor and Mattie T. Blount. Incidentally, those same schools earned the three lowest graduation rates in the system last year — well below the district average of 86 percent.
Despite what appears to be a juxtaposition of test scores and graduation rates, Mobile County Schools Superintendent Martha Peek said the two don’t necessarily measure the same thing. According to Peek, graduation rates give a “better picture of the total educational progress,” where standardized tests only provide a snapshot of a certain time.
“One thing we continue to do is single out one specific test, and there are many more components to judging student achievement and progress,” Peek said. “When it becomes that high-stakes, I don’t think it’s a full measure of everything that’s occurring in a school.”
Peek did acknowledge the recent implementation of the new state standards has increased the difficulty of the material students are tested on. She said it’s also possible the change in the way “failing schools” are calculated had an effect on the number of schools considered “failing.”
Malissa Valdes-Hubert, a spokesperson for the Alabama State Department of Education, said the same is true on the state level and for the 76 schools that found themselves in the bottom 6 percent this year.
“That changed who ended up being on the list and the number of schools on the list,” Valdes-Hubert said. “Looking at three out of the last six years gave schools with four good years the possibility of dropping off the list. Now, we’re just measuring one year.”
Valdes-Hubert also said here will “always be a 6 percent,” and thus, there would always be “failing schools” as defined in the AAA. However, she refuted the idea that higher levels of graduation rates are a result of removing a requirement to pass the Alabama High School Graduation Exam.
“On average, there were only about 2 [percent] to 3 percent of students failing the graduation exam and the number isn’t much different now,” she said. “The students are definitely learning as much. In fact, they’re learning more because the College and Career Ready Standards have increased the complexity and challenging nature of the coursework that students receive.”
Previously, Valdes-Hubert said increases in graduation rates could be attributed to “many things,” including local initiatives focused on keeping students at grade level with the age group they were in when they began the 9th grade.
No matter the cause of dip in tests scores, being on the list of “failing schools” under the AAA has real effects on schools and on entire school districts. The law, which passed with some controversy in 2013, allows students from “failing schools” to transfer to non-failing public or private institutions using a $3,500 tax credit from the Education Trust Fund.
Only a year after its implementation, Mobile County saw the second-highest number of transfers from any district in the state with 155 MCPSS students transferring from six “failing schools.”
More recently, Peek said, MCPSS has been working to improve the scores at schools that fell within the lowest sixth percentile in reading and math proficiency.
“We’ve been aware of our scores since August, and we’ve already been working in our schools with different programs and approaches to address the academic needs of our students,” she said. “We’re already in another year of our students working toward more rigorous standards measured by a more rigorous test, and we expect those results to improve. It’s a gradual process.”
Valdes-Hubert said the ALSDE does think it’s “unfortunate” reading and math proficiency isn’t on the same level as the state’s rising graduation rate, but, like Peek, she believes the higher standards adopted in 2012 will eventually see those scores rise as well.
However, keeping those standards in place long enough to see if that proves true has not been without opposition, as the legislature has fought to repeal the standards for several years due to the inclusion of Common Core elements.
State Sen. Rusty Glover (R-Mobile) has already introduced a bill with the same goal in the current session, though it does allow local school boards to make the final decision.
Peek and the Mobile County School Board have supported the new standards in the past, but the issue has become a focal point in the March 1 primary election between incumbent District 5 School Commissioner Dr. Bill Foster and his opponent, Theresa Lucas Hubbard.
As for Valdes-Hubert, she said the state has bought into those new standards as well.
“We’re totally committed to the standards because we believe they’re the best choice for students,” she explained. “We’ve seen tremendous progress from students in their engagement and activity in the classroom. I really encourage people to go to their schools and really look and see what’s happening.”