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Alabama Schools Kept in the Dark on Rating Appeals

Six months since a host of Alabama schools protested unsatisfactory performance ratings given to them by the state, about 100 of them -- including 25 in Mobile County and five in Baldwin -- have not heard anything back.

"There's something fundamentally unfair about this," said Mobile County schools Superintendent Harold Dodge. "We've appealed, and we're getting nothing."

State education officials said they've finished evaluating the Baldwin appeals and have started on Mobile County's, but they would not say how the schools seem to be fairing. Gloria Turner, testing coordinator with the State Department of Education, said Baldwin's results were mailed last week, but Baldwin officials said Friday they had not received anyything.

Turner said state employees would finish processing the appeals by the end of this week. She said the remaining schools would know their status by Feb. 24, when the state is scheduled to issue its annual "report cards" evaluating each Alabama public school.

The 2001 federal No Child Left Behind Act requires states to issue report cards evaluating their schools. Alabama, however, has been issuing them since 1996, said state education department spokeswoman Rebecca Leigh White. The agency posts the report cards on its Web site and instructs schools to send copies home with each pupil.

The upcoming round of report cards will say whether schools met the new performance standards.

At stake in the appeals are schools' reputations and the possibility that their students would be allowed to transfer elsewhere if the schools failed the standards again next year.

About 260 of 360 appeals filed statewide have been reviewed, Turner said. Of those, 44 schools have been released from the state's list of poor-performers. Several other schools have improved, Turner said, but are still not achieving all goals.

Last August, the state announced that about 80 percent of its public schools -- more than 1,300 -- had not met the new performance standards. That included 61 in Mobile County and 34 in Baldwin.

In the past, Alabama rated schools solely on student scores on standardized exams. But last year, daily student attendance and a new category known as "test participation" -- the number of students who showed up on the days of standardized exams -- were factored into the mix.

To calculate the test participation rate, state officials said they compared the number of test-takers to the number of students on attendance rolls during the first 120 days of school.

According to schools, however, many students moved or transferred before the tests were administered in the spring.

Two-thirds of the schools that failed the performance standards last year did so solely because of test participation, even though their students scored well.

Students at Breitling Elementary School in Grand Bay, for example, bested the state average on the Alabama Reading and Mathematics Test. But the school was labeled as substandard by the state because two pupils had moved away before Breitling gave the test, said Principal Cynthia Saliba.

Turner said the appeals process has taken "longer than we expected" because the method of evaluation is new and because the state is understaffed. The two or three employees who have worked on the appeals have done so on a part-time basis because they had other tasks, she said.

"We're talking about millions of records," Turner said. "It takes going child-by-child. This review couldn't be done electronically. It had to be a human being comparing databases."

On Wednesday, state officials had said that only 40 percent of the appeals were complete. By Friday morning, the number was up to 66 percent and by Friday afternoon 72 percent.

Dodge said he understands that the state department "must be absolutely swamped, but on the other side of that coin, I've got some really frustrated principals, who every time they see me, they ask, 'Have we gotten some relief?'"

Dodge said he is pleased that the state has made efforts to improve its attendance data collection for this year. He said he has been told that attendance will be taken just days ahead of the test date, which should help local schools.

Several principals and other local educators have alleged that the state wronged their schools by its use of enrollment data last year:

Forest Hill Elementary in northwest Mobile missed the mark because three pupils moved to other schools. Another student couldn't take the test because he was in the hospital.

A student at Mobile's Fonvielle Elementary moved to Utah but was counted as not having taken the test here.

At Gulf Shores Middle School, several students moved prior to test time, including some to West Virginia, Texas and California.

Four pupils at west Mobile's Dodge Elementary School, who took a make-up test, were never counted.

Also, students at several schools weren't counted because they did not fill out the test form properly.

Pam Henson, director of instructional support for Baldwin schools, said that principals and teachers did not realize that test participation would be weighted so heavily. This year, they're making an effort to ensure that students and parents know how important it is to come to school and take the test.

Robertsdale High was one of the Baldwin schools that did not meet state standards and later filed an appeal. Principal Theresa Bryant said 10 students who were promoted to a higher grade at mid-year were counted as being enrolled in both grades. That then hurt the school's test participation score.

While the school's rating is complex and has not seemed to turn many parents or students away, Bryant said, school administrators have been wondering about the appeal's status.

Bryant said she had not been given an update on the state's progress until a Mobile Register reporter called her last week. When told that the state hopes to finish this month, Bryant said, "That makes me feel better. It's probably an overwhelming task, and at least we know now that they're working on it."

— Rena Havner
Mobile Register


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