The Alabama State Department of Education has identified nine “failing” schools in Mobile County based on results of a single test that was axed last year because it failed to properly align with statewide standards.

Those schools joined 64 others across the state on a list released annually in conjunction with the Alabama Accountability Act, which designates any school in the bottom 6 percent of statewide reading and math scores as “failing.” It also allows students attending those schools to transfer to another, nonfailing public or private school.

For the last four years, statewide scores have come from the ACT Aspire, which is administered to students in grades 3-8 and high school sophomores. However, Alabama quit using that test last year after federal education officials determined it did not properly align with what is taught in classrooms.

So far, the state board of education has not selected a permanent replacement.

In the interim, elementary and middle school students will take a series of assessments created by Scantron and high school students will take the ACT, a standardized test used for college admissions. Those assessments will determine next year’s “failing” schools.

The Mobile County Public School System has had at least five “failing” schools on the annual list every year it’s been released. In 2016, 12 local schools were deemed to be failing. That fell to eight in 2017. This year, Theodore High School was removed from the list but Chastang-Fournier K-8 and Mobile County Training Middle School were added.

Other MCPSS schools on the list include: B.C. Rain High School, Williamson High School and Middle Grades, Booker T. Washington Middle School, Blount High School, Scarborough Middle School, LeFlore High School and Vigor High School — all of which have been on the list at least once before and some as many as five times.

Mobile County had the third-highest number of “failing” schools in the state this year, behind only Montgomery County Schools and Birmingham City Schools, which had 11 and 14, respectively.

As she has before, MCPSS Superintendent Martha Peek expressed frustration with the limited definition of “failing” established in the AAA — something she’s previously called “a political designation” and an incomplete measurement of student performance.

“We’re not discounting the test, and the scores were the scores that came out of that, but what we’re saying is there’s so much more that needs to be done to show a total picture of what our students are actually doing,” she said.

Peek made those comments at Blount High School a day after it was named a failing school to highlight things she says state tests fail to measure. Blount has a 90 percent graduation rate and 83 percent of its students have earned a College and Career Readiness credential.

To do that, Peek said students must have either benchmarked on at least one portion of the ACT, made a qualifying score on an Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exam, earned a workforce credential, been accepted into the military or earned a dual-enrollment credit.

Joining Peek at last week’s press conference was Blount Principal Jerome Woods and some of the school’s standout students. One of those was Daisy Ferrell, a 9th grader at the top of her class who secured a 25 on the ACT on her first attempt.

Ferrell is in a finite group of students who’ve taken the Aspire as well as the ACT college entrance exam. While they’re created by the same company, she said, “the ACT Aspire didn’t prepare [students] for the ACT.”

Instead, she credited her success on the exam to Blount and the prep classes she was able to take there. She also rejected the idea of labeling a school as “failing” based on a single test.

“One of the biggest problems that kids around Mobile County have is mentality, and being told we’re a failing school because of one test report puts that upon us. It puts us down,” Ferrell said. “When I hear that my school — the school I love and that has made me into the person I am — is failing, that hurts. Because I’m not a failure, and I don’t want to be classified as one.”

While Ferrell has found success, Peek acknowledged she’s been an exceptional student, adding that, like all schools, there is a “diverse” range of student performance at Blount. She said schools try to work individually with struggling students to help them catch up to their peers.

Peek said the school system also makes a push to work with parents by holding regular meetings for parents and establishing an online portal where they can monitor students’ grades and current classroom lessons. MCPSS even provides classes for parents so that they can learn how to support their students in particular subject areas.

“Not every parent can be at school everyday because some may have two or three jobs, but parental involvement can be as simple as making sure your child is in school every day, making sure you set the standards from home that your child is going to behave and that you share with your child the importance of education,” Peek said. “Also, make sure your child understands that when there is a measure of progress, it’s important to really focus in and do their best.”

While Peek said she wouldn’t make excuses about the nine schools deemed failing this year, she said there are number of reasons “why some schools have a little bit more difficult time on tests than others.” As was pointed out in an MCPSS release, in all nine schools on this year’s failing list, 100 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch.

Peek, who is retiring in June, expressed confidence that next year’s test scores would improve, though she noted there’s been a “concern” about using high school juniors’ scores on the ACT as the yardstick for student progress in 2018. While the test has been given to all high school juniors since 2014, average scores have been fairly low across Alabama.

Even Ferrell, who did well in her first attempt, said the ACT was much more difficult than the Aspire, which determined this year’s “failing” high schools. Following a statewide trend, high schools made up the majority of this year’s list locally, which is why Peek said there has been and will be a focus on ACT prep until the exam is administered in March.

Photo | Superintendent Martha Peek