The State Board of Education on Thursday once again defied the state Legislature. Instead of engaging in a power play, lawmakers should reconsider a law that has been roundly criticized since its passage in 2012.
The board’s recalcitrance has involved a mandated school grading system. Under state law, the state superintendent was to assign grades to each school beginning in the 2013-14 school year. The State Board of Education was to adopt rules designating how those grades would be determined, a task they have consistently failed to accomplish.
The law is binding on the state BOE, the State Department of Education and the state superintendent.
But they haven’t followed it.
Former state Superintendent Tommy Bice, who retired in March, thought it was a bad idea, but made an effort to come up with rules that would fairly assign grades to the schools. His effort failed. Interim state Superintendent Phillip Cleveland then took a crack at it. He failed.
Then came state Superintendent Michael Sentance, seemingly the perfect pick for a Legislature that long has had strained relations with the state BOE.
But Sentance, too, has criticized the school grading law.
Results from the ACT Aspire test released last week illustrate the problem Sentance and his predecessors have faced with applying a letter grade to a school.
Eastwood Elementary, which has the lowest poverty rate of Decatur public elementary schools, by all accounts is an excellent school. It no doubt would receive a high letter grade. Focusing on one grade level, its ACT Aspire results show 72.5 percent of its fourth-graders tested as proficient in math and 57.5 were proficient in reading.
Among those Eastwood Elementary students who live in poverty, however, the results are quite different. The fourth-graders living in poverty had proficiency rates of 47 percent in math and 29 percent in reading.
Now head across town to West Decatur Elementary. In stark contrast to Eastwood, almost all of its students live in poverty. It would receive a low grade on any school report card. Only 13 percent of fourth-graders were proficient in math, and 6 percent in reading.
From these two schools, we see that the percentage of students in poverty is a huge indicator of aggregate test scores. But still, Eastwood does better among its impoverished students than West Decatur.
Dig a little deeper, however, and a reason for that disparity becomes clear. Eastwood students speak English. It had no tested students who were “limited English proficient,” the lowest level of English proficiency, and almost none who were “non-limited English proficient,” the next step up. Most of West Decatur students struggle with the English language, however. Among those at the lowest level of English comprehension, none tested as proficient on the ACT Aspire in either reading or math. Among those with slightly better English comprehension, 25 percent tested as proficient in math and 10 percent in reading.
Here’s the painful fact: If district lines were drawn in such a way that Eastwood had a high percentage of impoverished students and a high percentage of non-English speakers, its ACT Aspire results would plummet. Eastwood, rather than West Decatur, would be facing the prospect of becoming a “failing school.” Drag the best schools that Mountain Brook or Madison have to offer to West Decatur’s Memorial Drive Southwest location, and their scores would be awful.
What’s clear from the ACT Aspire results released last week is that aggregate school scores are a little more than a reflection of demographics. A school with lots of students burdened by poverty or by an inability to speak English will not have high ACT Aspire scores.
It’s time for lawmakers to recognize this was a bad idea. The goal of pushing schools to improve is laudable, but making simplistic comparisons between schools with drastically different student populations is not.