The last two weeks were enlightening for those who believe Decatur’s future is inextricably tied to the quality of education it offers its children.
Five candidates to replace Superintendent Ed Nichols provided a glimpse of what they see as the primary challenges facing Decatur City Schools. Nichols himself gave a mea culpa for disturbingly low test scores in the system. And a representative of the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama provided a brutal assessment of the challenges the school district faces.
The plain truth — described in rosy terms by the superintendent candidates and in harsh ones by Nichols and PARCA — is that DCS test scores are being dragged down by its inability to help the growing number of students who live in poverty or who live in homes where English is a second language.
Using standardized tests to compare school systems has never been fair, and it is even less fair with ACT Aspire, the test now used in Alabama. Aspire requires fluency in English and a good vocabulary. A child who is brilliant in math but who lacks the vocabulary necessary to understand the math question will be labeled as deficient. Literacy and poverty are inversely correlated, so high poverty yields low test scores.
Pointing fingers — at the test, at the poor, at Hispanics — is a waste of time. The facts are simple. Low test scores hurt our community. Sixty-one percent of DCS students are so poor, they qualify for free or reduced-cost meals. Twenty-four percent of the students are Hispanic, some struggling to learn English themselves and many in families where English is rarely spoken.
No matter how well DCS’ high-income students do on ACT Aspire, DCS’ average test scores will be low until they find ways to educate the poor and those learning English as a second language.
That places an enormous burden on DCS, and a significant one on city and county officials. As a community, we cannot afford for groups of people to be disconnected from the school system. A family intimidated by teachers is a family that struggles to provide the support their child needs to succeed.
The educational transition to the new demographic reality in Decatur already has begun under Nichols, but test scores demonstrate much more needs to be done. Methods that worked well in a majority-white school district with a low poverty rate are inadequate in the Decatur of today.
The challenge for the school board is to select a candidate who is open to changing a system that was developed to serve a very different city.
An innovative superintendent committed to serving all DCS students will face plenty of pushback. Why use tax dollars to help those who will not help themselves, some will say. What are they doing in America if they can’t speak English, others will say.
But as a community, we need to recognize the reality. Decatur can’t progress until it is able to demonstrate to prospective residents and corporations that it has an excellent school system. And fair or not, the school system is judged by its test scores.
In order to raise those scores, the next superintendent will need to shake things up. And that will be impossible without community support.
The desire to maximize opportunity for all our children, regardless of race or origin or financial status, is reason enough to support change. But altruism is not required to understand the need for better test scores.