This December, Alabamians will finally see letter grades linked to accountability measures for each of our nearly 1,400 public schools. Plans are being finalized for the A-F school grading system, and the most recent draft, assumed to be final, was presented at September’s state board of education work session last week.
Schools and districts will not be assigned one overall grade. Instead, there will instead be a grade for each indicator, detailed below.
One final grade will be assigned beginning December 2017, though, as more indicators are included in that final grade.
Rep. Terri Collins (R-Decatur) was one of the original sponsors of the 2012 law and has continued to push for getting it up and running. Collins said she is excited to see it finally happen.
Though some are critical of the idea of giving schools grades, Collins said, “Knowing where you are is always your first step to moving in the right direction. A transparent and easy to understand description of how our schools are doing will help move our schools forward.”
Historically, Alabama’s students have consistently performed in the lower third of all states on most measures of achievement. Collins said knowing where successes and failures are “gives us the opportunity to celebrate and correct,” adding, “I know the children in Alabama can be as successful as any other state.”
Dr. Melinda Maddox, who served as Assistant State Superintendent over data and research and who helped create the report card, expressed concern about whether the public will understand what the grades represent. “I am concerned that schools will be labeled with a ‘B’ or ‘C’, and they thought they were a grade level higher and the parents will misunderstand. I’m really concerned with the public understanding of what this means because it is not the same as a student’s report card,” she said. Maddox retired effective Monday.
The Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) plans a massive communications effort to help the public understand the grading system. Efforts start soon and will include a dedicated web page on the ALSDE site.
School report cards, particularly ones using an A-F system, gained popularity in 2010, and by 2012, Alabama’s legislators brought it to Alabama.
Below is a list of the indicators that will be used for Alabama’s school report card. Not all indicators will be used for all schools. For example, schools without a 12th grade won’t have an indicator for graduation rate nor a college-and-career ready indicator.
The document below shows descriptions of indicators from a presentation posted on the ALSDE web site. One additional indicator has been added since the presentation was posted in July. Bonus points will be awarded based on student attendance. That addition of bonus points is reflected in images of the actual report cards below.
The following images show the most recent version of the report card, including the various indicators (including the bonus points for attendance) on which schools and districts will be graded. Note which indicators will be published in December 2016 versus December 2017.
The first image is for a school containing grades kindergarten through 8th grade. All indicators are included except those on graduation rate and college- and career-readiness.
Here’s a look at a report card for a school that has a 12th grade. It includes indicators for graduation rate and college- and career-readiness, but not achievement gap.
Superintendents across the state have seen mock-ups of what their school and district report cards might look like, and school districts are being trained on how to access the data dashboards that contain the student-level data that are behind the grade calculations.
School district officials will be able to see the actual grades for their schools in November, about a month prior to the public release in December.
A new rule to form the structure for the grading system has been proposed for the Alabama Administrative Code (AAC), the rule book state agencies must follow.
That new rule lays out the key performance indicators to be included: student achievement scores, achievement gaps, college and career readiness, and learning gains, It also requires the A-F framework.
It gives the state superintendent discretion to add other indicators and to assign weights and percentages for each indicator.
The public will be given a chance to voice their opinions about the new rule at the October 13th state board of education meeting in Montgomery.
Anyone who wants to address the state board about the rule must sign up in advance by contacting the state board of education at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Report Card Could Still Change
Though interim state superintendent Dr. Philip Cleveland told state board of education members that it’s an unlikely scenario, potentially, there could be three different systems of accountability:
- The A-F report card mandated by state law,
- The school ratings required under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), and
- The Alabama Accountability Act (AAA) designation.
Cleveland said he is working with lawmakers and with members of the Governor’s ESSA committee to ensure only one system is in place. Cleveland said he believes lawmakers are willing to tweak the language to use the report card designation as the mechanism for designating a school as “failing”.
ESSA requires states to report on school and student outcomes in a way that is meaningful and understandable to the public. One of the ESSA committees, the Accountability committee, is charged with ensuring Alabama’s report card meet the requirements of ESSA. Collins serves on that committee.
Next, the AAA defines a “failing school” as those schools whose standardized test results show them to be in the bottom 6% of all of Alabama’s schools. The original law, passed in 2013, called for the label “failing school” to be tied to the grade assigned through the report card once it was up and running. That language was struck in 2015.
Many have criticized the use of the word “failing” and board member Dr. Cynthia McCarty asked if some other designation, such as “developing” could be used, but was told the word “failing” is in the law.
Though charter schools are not expected to open until the fall of 2017 at the earliest, at this point it is believed that charter schools will be graded using the same system.
Though long-time educators distrust what the true motive behind mandating A-F report cards might be, Collins continues to state her belief that the purpose is to allow local communities to know what is happening in their neighborhood school. Collins believes communities will pitch in and work to make their neighborhood schools better if they have good information to work with.
The Four-Year Delay
Collins has followed the development of the report card since passing the law in 2012. The original law required the report card to be available to the public not later than December 2013.
There were multiple reasons for the delay.
Standardized test results are the heart of the grading system, and because Alabama changed its assessments from the Alabama Reading and Mathematics Test (ARMT) to the ACT Aspire tests beginning in the 2013-2014 school year, assigning a grade based on previous tests could have caused confusion once the tests were changed.
Additionally, learning gains couldn’t be determined until Alabama’s students took enough of the tests to form a baseline and establish what gains could and should be expected.
This past spring marked the third year Alabama’s students took the ACT Aspire, and according to the experts, a growth model has now been established.
As of last spring, only Alabama and Arkansas are using ACT Aspire testing for accountability. Arkansas only started using the ACT Aspire series this spring. (Though Alabama has yet to release recent test data, Arkansas released theirs in July.)
Now, after four years of consideration and preparation, school report cards will be published in December.
Addressing the delay, Collins remains hopeful. “I believe fear of the accountability is why there has been such a delay, but because we are now basing the grade on higher standards and better testing and have three years of data to show gains it is going to be a much better measure of success than just looking at proficiency on one test and judging the bottom 6%,” adding that the delay has allowed Alabama to learn from other state’s mistakes.
Other states have made mistakes, with some making changes in how grades were calculated.
In July, Florida, one of the models discussed during my time on the Task Force, released newly-calculated grades and according to one report, grades “plummeted” across the state, though the number of “F” schools was fewer than in previous years.
Board members agreed that this is a work in progress, and with the proposed rule allowing some flexibility, tweaks and changes to the grading system could be made if needed.
What follows is a quick look at my personal experience on the statewide Accountability Task Force.
My Experience on the Accountability Task Force
After the A-F grading law was passed in 2012, a task force was created at the ALSDE under former state superintendent Dr. Tommy Bice. The Accountability Task Force, as it was known, began meeting in November 2012. This ALSDE presentation sums up the recommendations of the Task Force.
I joined the Accountability Task Force as a parent and community representative with voting privileges in October 2013, prior to the incorporation of the Alabama School Connection (ASC) as a nonprofit news organization in June 2014.
I struggled with whether I should step off of the Task Force after incorporating the ASC, but was encouraged to stay on, being told my communication background added value to the Task Force. I participated until the Task Force was disbanded in October 2015.
I was one of about 25 folks from across the state, including superintendents, administrators, principals, teachers, and ALSDE staff who struggled over which elements of inputs and outcomes would become a part of Alabama’s A-F system. I was the only non-educator voting most of the time. There were healthy, and sometimes heated, discussions.
The meetings were held in Montgomery, though in at least two instances, I participated via telephone.
I learned a lot from the education professionals at the table.
I learned that those who work in our schools are terribly concerned about policymakers and the public abusing measures of student success, and that they believe deeply that the inequitable and inadequate state system of funding Alabama’s schools sets many schools and districts up for failure.
Many wanted a way to “grade” communities for their support of their schools, though no measures currently exist.
What was made clear to me during my participation on the Task Force was that we, the public, need to be responsible with the results we are given. I re-committed myself to reporting test results and measures of accountability in a way that was not simply a talking point at a kitchen table (“that school system is just terrible”), but that would encourage communities to ask questions about why their school and system grades were what they were.
I am grateful for the experience. And I am eager to continue down the path of giving communities meaningful and varied information to allow all of those interested to determine what it is that children within their schools need to be successful in their pursuit of education.