Here’s a look at Alabama’s ‘failing’ public schools

Alabama's failing public schools
Alabama school officials released the “failing” public schools list on Nov. 1, 2019.

On the eighth annual list of “failing” Alabama schools, released Friday morning, all but 10 of the 75 public schools on the list were making a repeat appearance. Fifty-two of the schools made the list last year, too.

And although the schools may change a bit from year to year, the student demographics inside those so-called “failing” schools change little. Year in year out, Alabama labels as failing dozens of majority black schools in high poverty neighborhoods.

This year is no different, but with more information being released on the state report card than ever before, we know a little bit more about these schools than we have in years past.

First, the basics:

  • There were all types of grade configurations, from K-12 to traditional elementary, middle and high schools. Just under half had a 12th grade.
  • Nearly all of the students enrolled in these schools are eligible for free or reduced-price meals.
  • Of the 37,054 students enrolled during the 2018-19 school year, 33,312 are African-American, 1,787 are Hispanic, 864 are white, and 25 identified as two or more races. That means 90 percent of the children attending “failing” schools are African-American, compared to 32% percent in public schools overall in Alabama.
  • Seven schools have been on the list every year since the first year the list was published in 2013.
  • Eight schools have been on the list seven of the past eight years.
  • The way the state set it up, it’s not easy to climb off this list. The majority of schools have spent three, four or five years on the list.
  • Of the 23 schools added to the list this year, 13 had been on the list at some other point since 2013.

Here are the 10 new additions, making their first appearance on the “failing” schools list:

  • Acceleration Day and Evening Academy – public charter school in Mobile
  • Chickasaw City High School – Chickasaw City schools
  • Chickasaw Middle School – Chickasaw City schools
  • Girard Primary School – Dothan City schools
  • R.A. Hubbard High School – Lawrence County schools
  • J.F. Shields High School – Monroe County schools
  • Dunbar-Ramer School – Montgomery County schools
  • Talladega High School – Talladega City schools
  • ABC Elementary School – Wilcox County schools
  • J.E. Hobbs Elementary School – Wilcox County schools

A map at the bottom of this article displays the location and other details about this year’s “failing” schools.

Confusion with state report card grades

The third round of report card grades came out two weeks ago, and because the report card considers more than just proficiency on standardized tests, there are some schools on the “failing” list that made as high as a “B” on the report card, yet still landed on the “failing” list.

  • 18 earned F’s
  • 44 earned D’s,
  • 11 earned C’s,
  • 2 earned B’s

Some showed strong growth, earning as many as 100 points for growth for whether students met individual growth targets.

That there are two lists is confusing to schools and to the public. How can a school make an “F” on the report card and not be on the “failing” schools list? And how can a school that makes a “B” on the report card be on the list?

That wasn’t how it was supposed to be. But it’s how the law has evolved, and there’s no sign anything will change anytime soon.

When the Accountability Act was initially passed in March 2013, a school was labeled failing if it received an “F” on the report card or D’s three years in a row. The law creating the state report card had been passed a year earlier, in 2012.

By May 2013, the law was amended and the definition of failing school was expanded to include schools whose test scores had been in the bottom 6% for three of the prior six years.

In 2015, the law was amended again, narrowing that parameter to the bottom 6% in the previous year.

By state law today, the failing list is a competition, pitting public schools against one another to stay off of the bottom. That means, by law, there will always be dozens of “failing” public schools across Alabama.

It’s based on test scores in reading and math. Students in grades three through eight statewide take reading and math tests, and students in 11th grade take the ACT college entrance exam.

The list contains schools whose achievement level is among the bottom 6% statewide. And yes, there are low levels of proficiency in these schools, ranging from 4% to 19% in math and from 7% to 22% in reading.

Statewide, 45% of students were proficient in reading and 47% were proficient in math last year.

Critics contend the failing label unfairly judges a school based on one test on one day. Lawmakers originally planned to use report card grades as the measure, but development of the report card was delayed so the 6% stuck.

Originally billed as a way to help students escape “failing” public schools, state lawmakers re-branded the law as a school choice program in 2015, more accurately matching how the program is being used.

The “failing” label is a requirement for parents who want to claim a tax credit for costs associated with transferring to a private school. But fewer than 200 parents in failing schools each year use that provision of the law. The label also allows students in “failing” schools to have priority in obtaining a scholarship to cover costs associated with leaving a “failing” school to attend a private or out-of-district public school.

In 2017, the Senate passed changes to the Accountability Act which included changing the label from “failing” to “underperforming,” but it died in the House.

Improvement

Among the doom and gloom, it can’t be forgotten that 24 schools came off the list, which is no doubt a relief for those school officials. But a look at test results showed a mix bag of improvement, with some schools coming off the list having just enough improvement to get out of the bottom 6%, while others doubled their proficiency rates.

The big winners this year were in three Black Belt counties, whose test scores improved enough to get all their schools off the failing list.

Sumter County saw all of its failing schools come off the list for the first time since the list was created. Proficiency levels doubled in math at Kinterbish Junior High School, rising from 13% in 2018 to 26% in 2019. At York West End Junior High School, math scores jumped from 6% in 2018 to 24% in 2019. Reading proficiency in both schools improved by smaller percentage points, hovering around 20%.

In a press release, Sumter County Superintendent Dr. Anthony Gardner gave credit to students and school staff for the improved results, acknowledging there is still work to do.

In Perry County, whose only two schools were on the list last year, proficiency rates improved by double-digit percentage points at Robert Hatch High School, a K-12 school, rising from 17% to 28% in math and 15% to 26% in reading. There was improvement for students in reading and math at Francis Marion School, also a K-12 school.

In Hale County, Greensboro High School came off the list after being on it six of the last seven years.

Large urban systems tend to see an annual churn of schools coming off the list and new ones being added.

Birmingham saw 16 schools on the list, most in the state, but down from 20 last year.

In Mobile County, seven schools made the list, down from nine last year. Improvement in proficiency rates ranged from a two-percentage-point increase in reading at Booker T. Washington Middle school to an 11-percentage-point increase in math at Morningside Elementary School.

In Montgomery, two schools came off the list and three schools were added.

In Huntsville, Lakewood Elementary and Jemison High School saw big improvements in math scores, nearly doubling from 13% to more than 25% at each school, and reading scores jumped from 15% at both schools to 24% at Lakewood and 26% at Jemison.

But schools that stayed on the list, across the state, also saw improvements in proficiency rates. Just not enough to get off the list.

Inexperienced teachers

One interesting new piece of information made available on the state’s report card is the number of teachers who are inexperienced, meaning they have fewer than three years teaching experience.

In schools on the failing list, just over half—38 schools—had more than 20% of the school’s teachers considered inexperienced. That’s more inexperienced teachers than seen at most schools.

Statewide, less than a third of schools have as high a proportion of inexperienced teachers.

Choices for students in ‘failing’ schools

Parents of students in “failing” schools must be notified of their choices for the 2020-21 school year: stay in the school, transfer to a non-failing school within the same school district (transportation must be provided by the district), transfer to a neighboring public school district (if they’ll accept the student), or enroll in a private or home school.

The state does not have reliable data on how many students from failing schools use each option.

The provision in the law that allows 20% of the state funded per student amount to remain at the “failing” schools after a student leaves only kicks in when a student was enrolled in the “failing” school and the parent successfully claims a tax credit. In 2018, 120 parents claimed the tax credit, but very few of those students were actually enrolled in the “failing” school, meaning very little money goes to schools labeled “failing.”

Critics of the program say the tax credit depletes already scarce resources for public schools by diverting income tax from the Education Trust Fund. From 2013 through 2018, $133 million in income tax credits were taken for donations made to the program. The full $30 million allowed under current law was claimed in the 2018 tax year.

Most students using tax-credit scholarships did not attend failing schools. Right at 4,000 students were given those scholarships last year, but only about a third of students were zoned to attend a currently labeled “failing” school, records show.

The map below shows the location and other details of the schools on the “failing” list. Each dot represents a school on the list. Hover over the dot for more information about the school. As always, the map is best seen on a larger screen.

Click here if you are unable to see the map below.

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