Following back to back weeks of negative state designations, Superintendent Martha Peek and members of the Mobile County School Board called a fiery press conference yesterday that questioned the motives of lawmakers in Montgomery and pushed back against criticism from local officials.

This morning, the state department of education (ALSDE) released the first report cards for individual schools, and the MCPSS scores ran the gamut from failing to above average. This was just a week after the state’s annual list of “failing” schools included nine from the district.

Of the 78 MCPSS schools graded, eight received As, 15 received Bs, 32 received Cs, 16 received Ds and seven received Fs. The system received a “C” average overall.

Interestingly, some of the schools deemed failing last week did not receive an F today. Others, like Pillans Middle School and Fonde Elementary, weren’t listed but did receive F’s in the new state assessment.

Mobile County Superintendent Martha Peek. (Jason Johnson)

Peek acknowledged MCPSS has much room for improvement but expressed concern that the “failing schools” list and the newly released school report cards were based, at least in part, on results from the ACT Aspire, which is no longer administered because it failed to align with standards.

Peek also expressed frustration that ALSDE changed the criteria the report cards are based on just two months before their release — shifting from a broader set of measurements she and other Alabama educators spent two and half years on an assessment committee developing.

“I think we need to accept it as a prototype and not brand, grade and sort schools as well as students or make major decisions based on these scores from a single test,” Peek said. “I want people to see all of what’s happening in the school and not to react dramatically to one test.”

In a press release, ALSDE officials said the report cards were “designed so parents, educators, stakeholders and others can easily understand how their schools are doing” and would hopefully “spawn conversation about ways to improve public education in the future.”

Based on ALSDE’s data, the report cards released on Thursday measured things like academic achievement and yearly growth on statewide standardized tests. Across the state, the results were mixed with most systems falling into the A to C range.

While no school system received an F overall, there were 95 individual schools that did.

Besides test scores, the percentage of students meeting college and career ready standards and four-year graduation rates were considered for high schools, and all schools were measured by the percentage of their students with 15 or more absences in a given year.

For MCPSS, one of biggest setbacks was its scores on last year’s ACT Aspire, which was given to students in grades 3 through 8 and high school sophomores. System-wide, academic achievement was calculated at just 57 percent, which is just below the state average of 60 percent.

You can view report cards for individual schools here and in the slideshow below:

At a special meeting of the school board the day before the report cards were released, some members of the board joined Peek in expressing frustration with the way the list of failing schools and reports cards are calculated as well as the perception the create for schools.

The Alabama Accountability Act of 2013 [AAA] and the State Report Card Act of 2012 were both passed in the name of greater accountability in public education, but both have also been widely criticized by teachers and school administrators, including Peek.

“Do we have areas that need improvement? Yes, absolutely, but what I feel so strongly about is that every year a score and a list overshadows what is done for every student,” she said. “I question the political motives.”

Since its passage, the AAA has designated any school in the bottom 6 percent of statewide reading and math scores as “failing” and allows students attending those schools to transfer to another non-failing public or private institution.

The law created tax credits for parents, but also a dollar-for-dollar reduction in state tax liability for businesses and individuals who contribute to organizations that grant scholarships to those students — deductions that ultimately divert money from the Education Trust Fund.

While some might characterize Peek’s criticisms as defensive, she isn’t alone. Professional organizations for teachers, superintendents and school boards have made similar claims.

Madison County Superintendent Matt Massey told in December that school report cards were “bad for the state” and “bad for education.” Madison County received a high B on its system-wide report card and didn’t have any “failing” schools under the AAA this year.

Even school board president William Foster, who isn’t known for making controversial statements, had sharp criticisms for both accountability measurements, telling the press at Wednesday’s special called meeting they were “designed to continue failure.”

Mobile County School Board Commissioner Bill Foster.

“When you use percentages, you’re always going to have failures,” Foster said. “I want our children to have the best that we can give them, and I don’t want my children, my grandchild or anyone else’s child or grandchild to be referred to as failing because they’re not. They’re simply in that category because 6 percent has to fail.”

Commissioner Reginald Crenshaw shared many of those sentiments about one test determining student performance, but he particularly took issue with the notion that the school system’s performance on state tests has hurt economic development in the city of Mobile.

“To this notion that failing schools are turning off industry coming to Mobile, I can’t think of any industry that came out to Blount High School, Vigor High or wherever looking to put their kids in school. They can put them in whatever school they want to and that’s alright, but to say we’re hurting industry is not fair,” Crenshaw said. When an industry is looking for individuals to hire, they’re looking for those who have graduated and are workforce ready, not one test score.”

Crenshaw didn’t specify who he believed those claims were coming from, but Commissioner Robert Battles suggested officials in Mobile have been unhappy with the performance of schools in the inner city, many of which have be on the failing schools list multiple times.

“Y’all talking about the city, well the city is upset because it does make a difference,” Battles added. “I know most of those people who come in for those jobs, they go to Baldwin County.”

Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s office declined to address Battles’ claim, though Stimpson did briefly address the matter Twitter last week writing, “One failing school is not acceptable — much less nine. Our schools are the cornerstone of our city. Now is the time to solve this problem.”

Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s tweet about local schools got a quick reaction from teachers and administrators. (Twitter)

That seemed to get the attention of some MCPSS employees who fired back tweets of their own, including Peek who invited Stimpson to work with the school system on “the issues in the city that impact education. A teacher at Vigor High School noted that “many of the ‘failing schools’ service students from ‘failing communities.’”

Even Chief Academic Officer Karen Mohr chimed in, writing “many of our students live in areas of high poverty and crime, but are bright, capable and determined to defy the odds.”

“Our students are more than one test score,” she added.

Also at yesterday’s board meeting, Battles raised a separate issue about the distribution of resources and attention between schools after noting that all nine this year’s “failing schools” have predominantly African-American student populations.

He said there were “systemic reasons” for those results and alleged the board hasn’t “taken an equitable approach” to all of its schools. Battles said he plans to meet with constituents from his district after Mardi Gras to weigh the possibility of taking up the issue in federal court.

Mobile County School Commissioner Robert Battles (Jason Johnson)

“When we look at these nine failing schools, we don’t have to look at no math or no other type of measurement to determine whether or not there are some inequities and disparities,” Battle said. “Look at the feeder schools that come into each one. You’ll see why they’re failing.”

Battles specifically mentioned the recent moves to reformat Murphy High School, which he described as an “extra effort to try to appease the white community in Midtown.” He said predominantly black schools in his district don’t receive “equitable attention.”

It’s worth noting that 76 percent of Murphy students are black, according to ALSDE.

Peek also pointed out the nine schools on the failing list received a combined $5.6 million in local funds above their state allocation to fund necessary teaching positions, staff training, test materials and parenting programs. In fact, she said some of that money came from federal Title 1 funds diverted from other schools that would have otherwise received them.