In the past five years, Mobile County has had multiple schools defined as “failing” by the state of Alabama, but with concerns over the test determining that designation swirling in Montgomery, local educators are looking for a “broader and more relevant” way to measure success.

Superintendent Martha Peek announced last week the Mobile County Public School System (MCPSS) would be voluntarily taking part in “Redefining Ready,” a national initiative created by the School Superintendents Association (AASA).

Though the program has no bearing on standards or performance measures set at the state level, looking at MCPSS through the lens of Redefining Ready could offer a glimpse into student performance against multiple, varied indicators as opposed to a single test.

Mobile County Public Schools Superintendent Martha Peek.

“Right now, in the state of Alabama, we’re using the most high-stakes measures of student achievement that I’ve ever witnessed in my 40-some-odd years in education,” Peek told MCPSS staff last week, referring to the ACT Aspire. “We can use multiple metrics to measure student success, we can recognize the abilities of all of our students, we can help them develop their full potential.”

The ACT Aspire, which is given annually to students in grades 3-8 and grade 10, not only determines “failing” schools under the Alabama Accountability Act, it also will impact where schools fall on the “A-F grade scale” the Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) is unveiling in December.

According to AASA President David Schuler, the research driving Redefining Ready suggests tests like the ACT Aspire don’t adequately measure how prepared students are to enter college or join the workforce. Instead, he said, they measure how well students take tests.

The superintendent of a district in the Chicago suburbs, Schuler said ACT results indicated only 47 percent of students in his district were “college- and career-ready,” while Redefining Ready suggested 79 percent were — a number more reflective of the 81 percent of graduates Schuler claims attend a second year of college, on average.

“Students are more than the score they earn on a test,” Schuler said. “When we allow ourselves to be defined by a single test score, we not only devalue those students, we devalue the teachers, the parents and the communities in which they live. That is simply unfair, it’s inaccurate, it’s inappropriate and it has to change.”

College readiness indicators outlined in the Redefining Ready initiative. (redefiningready.org)

In Redefining Ready, students can be deemed “college-ready” based on standardized testing benchmarks, as well as by academic indicators such as GPA and satisfactory performance in advanced placement, dual enrollment or international baccalaureate programs.

On a career track, students are considered “ready” when they’ve identified a potential career field and met benchmarks for community service, internships, on-the-job training and earned industry credentials — a number of which are already available to MCPSS students through the Signature Academies at each of the district’s 12 high schools.

Career readiness indicators outlined in the Redefining Ready initiative. (redefiningready.org)

Though there’s no cost associated with Redefining Ready, keeping up with its standards could require MCPSS to add programming down the road.

According to Peek, there’s already “a firm foundation” at MCPSS for those standards, though there’s still some work to be done.

“It’s been a series of jumps along the way for us — making sure that we build business, industry and higher education partnerships, that we have internships in place and that coursework is rigorous no matter what you’re going into,” Peek said. “The next stage will be adding additional components we’ll need to reach the level we’re seeing in Redefining Ready. One of the gaps we have right now is community service, so that’s something we’ll have to increase.”

It’s also no coincidence MCPSS is jumping into Redefining Ready as state officials weigh how student performance in Alabama will be evaluated going forward. Peek said she’s hopeful MCPSS can nudge the state toward a system that evaluates more than test results.

“Of course, we always have and will follow the state guidelines, but what we would like to do is maybe be a catalyst for the state and get them to look at something other than just one test score,” she said. “Particularly with the Aspire, everybody is struggling right now.”

This breakdown shows the percentages of students who met statewide proficiency standards in reading and mathematics in 2016. (ALSDE)

While Alabama’s results on the Aspire have been consistently poor — proficiency averages among all students have hovered around 50 percent since 2014 — concerns over its alignment with Alabama’s College- and Career-Ready standards have added to its problems.

Last year, federal education officials raised questions about how well Aspire aligned with those standards, and since then, ALSDE and the Alabama State Board of Education have been slowly moving toward getting rid of the test altogether.

Aspire was omitted from ALSDE’s 2017-2018 testing calendar, and State Superintendent Michael Sentance has already asked federal officials once if Alabama could drop Aspire and test students in 2018 using exams that could potentially take its place in the future.

At a meeting last Thursday, however, Sentance told state school board members his request had been all but shot down in Washington. He said he plans to present the board with recommendations for action in late June, but in the interim, the future of a standardized test with massive implications has been left up in the air.

Locally, Aspire is also administered electronically, which has presented its own set of challenges. Recently Peek told Lagniappe she was “concerned with the validity of the test scores for 2017” because technical problems were reported at 48 of 64 MCPSS testing sites.

“Some of the problems we experienced included lapses in time between test questions and the test freezing and ending before the students got to the last question,” she said. “We began reporting these problems as they occurred, but we have yet to receive a solution from ACT.”

Despite those concerns, though, Peek said the U.S. Department of Education’s rejection of a waiver that would drop the Aspire has left very few short-term options. She said she regrets federal officials “aren’t looking at the overall complexity of the situation.”

“We need time to either identify another test or develop one that is aligned to our academic standards,” Peek said. “The practical thing would have been to issue a waiver and look at our formative data and readiness indicators while we work to replace the ACT Aspire.”