Will Alabama’s schools show improvement on report cards?

It’s the end of the calendar year, so you know it’s that time again: time for the release of the new round of report cards for schools and districts and a new batch of school-related information required under federal law.

The Alabama State Board of Education will learn the state-level report card grade for the 2017-18 school year at their Dec. 13 board meeting, while district- and school-level report cards will be released on Dec. 21, according to state superintendent Eric Mackey.

A huge batch of new-before-published information, including school-level spending per student and details about teacher and principal experience is required under the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act, the successor to No Child Left Behind. It is unclear whether the federal data will be available the same day, but both the state and federal information are required to be released before the end of the year.

Reporting for both state and federal requirements will be in the same format as it was last year, according to state officials. All report cards will be posted on the Alabama State Department of Education website.

The state’s A-F report card

State lawmakers passed the law requiring the use of letter grades for school and district report cards in 2012. For reasons including a change in which test was being used, the first round of report cards wasn’t released until December 2016. Those had no letter grades and were considered a work in progress.

The first letter-grade report cards were released in February for the 2016-17 school year. Statewide, schools earned a C.

Under state law, a single letter grade is assigned to every school with a grade that is tested based on a set of indicators decided upon by state education officials.

Critics of grading schools say education is too complicated to boil down to a single letter grade. Proponents say the single letter grade is something parents can easily understand.

The first round of report cards with letter grades, released in February and reflecting the 2016-17 school year, netted the full array of A’s through F’s across 1,247 schools, with lower grades being earned by schools with high poverty levels.

The connection between high student poverty levels and low student achievement is well established, leading critics of the report card grades to say the grades unfairly paint those schools in a poor light.

For example, on last year’s report card, of the 291 schools where 90 percent or more of the students are in poverty, only one, Anna Booth Elementary school in Mobile County, earned an A. Seven of those schools earned a B and 60 schools earned a C. The remainder earned D’s and F’s.

And of the 137 schools that received A’s last year, the median poverty level was 24 percent, and 117 of those schools had less than 50 percent of their student body in poverty.

Two sets of “failing” schools

It is important to note that there is another state-level accountability measure in use that has nothing to do with the state school grades or federal report cards. Schools performing in the bottom 6 percent of schools statewide on standardized tests are labeled “failing” under the Alabama Accountability Act.

School officials are required to offer students attending “failing” schools the opportunity to transfer to a non-failing school within the same district, if available. If that is not an option a parent chooses, the student is eligible for a tax-credit scholarship to pay for tuition to a participating private or public school.

Only 1,226 of the 3,668 students currently using tax-credit scholarships under the AAA are zoned to attend a “failing” public school, according to required public reports. Only students whose families do not exceed certain income requirements are eligible for tax-credit scholarships.

Having two separate accountability measures—letter grades on school report cards and “failing” public schools under the AAA—has resulted in two sets of schools being labeled as failing.

On the 2016-17 school report card, 104 schools earned F’s. Under the AAA, 76 schools were labeled “failing.” There are 52 schools that appear on both lists.

State report card measures

Academic achievement and growth scores are taken from results of standardized testing of students in grades three through eight and in the 11th grade. Schools without a grade that is tested will not be given a report card.

Grades from the 2016-17 school year were based on a test the state has now abandoned, the ACT Aspire. The state board of education dropped the ACT Aspire on former state Superintendent Michael Sentance’s recommendation that Alabama should create its own test, which it is now in the process of doing.

In the interim, schools are using the Scantron series of tests, which measures growth in an individual student’s scores from the start of the year to the end of the year, instead of measuring it from one grade to the next, as the ACT Aspire did.

The growth measure is seen as a fairer measure by school officials because it measures where students are and how much their achievement grew from one period to the next. Even in schools where overall student achievement levels are low, schools have scored high on growth.

For example, in last year’s report card, 14 schools with 90 percent or more of their students in poverty earned A’s in the academic growth category. In three of those schools, fewer than 20 points were earned in the achievement (actual test results) category.

That means that even with the challenges children in poverty face, students are still making significant progress in their learning.

Data Recognition Corporation was chosen to oversee the creation and administration of the new test, which will be given in grades two through eight in math and English. The second-grade tests will only be used to measure growth from the second to the third grade and will not be reported alongside the other grade results.

Tests for science will be given in the fourth, sixth and eighth grades, a change from the current fifth- and seventh-grade administration. The newly-created tests will be piloted in the spring of 2019 and will be given statewide in 2020.

The other two categories of measures on the state report card are graduation rate and college- and career-readiness rate. Those measures will only be calculated for schools with a 12th grade. Ideally, those two rates should be similar, showing that students who graduate from high school have accomplished one of seven measures of college- and career-readiness.

Alabama seven college and career readiness indicators are:

  • Earning a benchmark score in any subject area on the ACT college  entrance exam,
  • Earning a qualifying score of 3 or higher on an Advanced Placement  (AP) exam,
  • Earning a qualifying score of 4 or higher on an International  Baccalaureate (IB) exam,
  • Earning college credit while in high school,
  • Earning a silver or gold level on the ACT WorkKeys exam,
  • Earning a career technical industry credential, or
  • Being accepted into the military.

Graduation rates will again be based only on four-year-cohorts, meaning it will measure the percentage of students who graduate with a diploma four years later. Plans to incorporate a five-year graduation rate were scrapped after data quality concerns were raised.

New to the state report card is a measure of the progress students who are learning English are making. That progress, measured by growth on a test for students learning English, was only measured for students who have been in a school or district for at least 85 percent of the school year.

Are Alabama's high school graduates ready for the next step?

Are Alabama’s high school graduates ready for the next step?

When Alabama’s public school students graduate, how do we know if they’re ready for the next step: college or career?

Here’s the breakdown of measures used on the state’s report card.

Here's a breakdown of the measures used to calculate school grades for the 2017-18 school year.
Here’s a breakdown of the measures used to calculate school grades for the 2017-18 school year.  Trisha Powell Crain | tcrain@al.com

The new ESSA report card

Alabama’s plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, uses the same measures as the state’s report card for identifying which schools need additional support. ESSA requires states to use a rating system, and Alabama will use a 100-point scale without letter grades for federal reporting.

Three levels of support are available, based on the results of the indicators used to calculate a school’s grade. Schools and districts identified for support will be listed on the state’s report card, along with the amount of school improvement funds the school receives and the strategies the school will implement to improve learning.

For the first time under federal law, school officials are now required to report spending per student by school along with the source (federal, state, or local) of that money. Capital expenditures and spending on debt service are not included in those figures.

Additional information that ESSA requires to be reported includes:

  • Percentages of students who are a first-year English learner, and what portion of those students were exempted from reading tests,
  • Percentages and numbers of students with the most significant cognitive disabilities who take alternate tests,
  • Percentages of teachers, principals and other school leaders who are inexperienced,
  • Percentages of teachers teaching out of field,
  • Percentages of teachers using emergency or provisional credentials,
  • Percentage of classes in core academic subjects not taught by qualified teachers in both high-poverty and low-poverty schools, and
  • National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) results for Alabama students.

School-level information on the numbers of suspensions (both in-school and out-of-school), expulsions, school-related arrests, referrals to law enforcement and incidents of violence including bullying and harassment must also be reported.

Schools and districts must also report enrollment in preschool programs and the number and percentage of students enrolled in Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and dual enrollment courses.

Data will still be required to be broken down by the major racial and ethnic groups as well by children with disabilities, those who are economically disadvantaged and English language learners.

Under ESSA, schools and districts along with the state, are required to set goals for academic improvement. Those goals and where schools and districts are in relation to those goals must also be reported.

No doubt it is a lot of new information for parents and community members to review and digest.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos released a guide for parents to understand the new report cards, urging parents to use the information in the federal report card to make decisions about their child’s education.

In addition to parents acting on the information, proponents of report cards say communities can use the grades to start conversations among parents and school officials and the greater community. With strong leadership, communities can be galvanized to improve education for all children.


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