Superintendent Martha Peek said the list of Alabama’s failing schools released last week was a “political designation,” maintaining that Mobile County schools are improving despite eight local institutions showing up on the this year’s list — some for the fifth consecutive year.

Mobile County Public Schools Superintendent Martha Peek.

“This is from a political, legislative act, not an educational set of standards, because as educators we know students continue to make measured progress over time,” she added. “We’re certainly disappointed that we have schools on the list but not disappointed in what we’re doing in the schools because I know how hard everyone is working, and I know our students are capable.”

Peek was referring to the Alabama Accountability Act, which requires the state Department of Education (ALSDE) to designate as failing any school that finds itself among the “bottom 6 percent of standardized reading and math scores” three or more times in a six-year period.

Since the Accountability Act passed in 2013, Mobile County has recorded at least five schools on that list every year. Last year, the number ballooned to 12, but the list released last week designated just eight local schools as failing. Those included B.C, Rain, Booker T. Washington, Blount, Vigor, Williamson, Theodore and Leflore Magnet high schools as well as Scarborough Middle School.

While the total number is down, it includes more high schools than ever before.

Peek blamed at least part of those results on a shift in state testing because, for the first time this year, progress in traditional grades 9-12 high schools was measured entirely by the results of the ACT Aspire, which was given to high school sophomores for the first time last year.

In recent years, 10th graders haven’t been given tests tied to their school’s achievement scores, and Peek called the change “a totally new experience.” Mobile County’s results also weren’t isolated. Of the 75 Alabama schools considered failing this year, 43 were high schools.

“This doesn’t affect student grades, promotion or retention,” Peek said. “It’s a measurement, and the intent was to get a snapshot in grade 10 to see where the strengths and weakness are as students progress toward taking the ACT in grade 11. What we know is, we have to continue to focus and make sure our students understand this test is of critical importance in the future.”

While the change in testing may have contributed to some of the “failing” designations, others have been on the list multiple times including Scarborough Middle School and Booker T. Washington Middle School — both of which have been listed for five consecutive years.

However, the Mobile County Board of Education voted to make sweeping changes at Scarborough in 2016 after only 9 percent of students met statewide benchmarks in reading and math. While that decision was made in April, Peek said “semantics or different views or whatever” between the district and the ALSDE caused the school’s failing status to not change.

“They’re still on the list, but the school’s been totally reconstituted,” Peek said. “The data is from the old Scarborough, which has nothing to do with the the school’s current performance.”

Other Mobile County schools that have been repeatedly designated as failing under the Accountability Act have also been subject to changes and closures in recent years, though not necessarily for that reason.

All of the Mobile County “failing schools” recorded since 2013 as defined by the Alabama Accountability Act. [Jason Johnson]

Augusta Evans School made three consecutive appearances on the list of failing schools before being shut down in 2015, and when Mae Eanes Middle School closed its doors last year it had been on the list four years in a row. Denton Middle School was also listed as failing three times before it was converted to the district’s seventh magnet program last year.

Theodore High School.

Those schools also happened to fit into another trend in the data, which is that schools with high rates of poverty routinely make up the majority of those considered failing. In fact, of the 16 MCPSS schools listed as “failing” since 2013, only Theodore High School [38 percent] has recorded a poverty rate of less than 50 percent.

As for the test scores that generate the annual list, they are based on reading and math results students in grades 3-8 and grade 10 received on the ACT Aspire.

This year’s local reading results were varied, but on average 35 percent of students met or exceeded proficiency standards in reading, with the highest being 42 percent of students in grade 8 and the lowest being a 24 percent rate of proficiency among those tested in grade 10.

Math scores, on the other hand, seemed to decrease as students aged in 2016. While 54 percent of MCPSS third graders met or exceeded proficiency in math last year, that number dropped to 11 percent among students tested in the 10th grade.

Overall, though, the percentage of MCPSS students who met or exceeded proficiency standards in the three subjects tested came out at 51.6 percent — continuing an upward trend from the two previous years that recorded proficiency levels of 46.5 percent and 48.4 percent, respectively.

With more time to focus on the testing of high school students and this year’s standardized tests just around the corner, Peek said MCPSS is trying to keep momentum as it continues “moving forward.”

“Every school has a plan to address those schools’ individual needs, and they’ve been working diligently on those needs all year long,” Peek said. “Right now, we’re 49 days out from testing again, and we’re confident that we’ll see continued improvement. We also don’t anticipate having high schools on the list next year.”

As others have before, Peek expressed concern with the Accountability Act’s use of the term “failing.” She said the moniker is “detrimental” to schools and also pointed out that every school could achieve proficiency and “there would still be a lowest six percent” under the law.

“I think it’s a very narrow outlook at what students are doing, and it isn’t based on educational practice as much as politics,” Peek said. “I think it’s very unfair to the students and the faculty and staff members because they’re not failing, and they’re not low-performing.”