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State alters how schools are judged; Half-credit given to students only partly at grade on reading, math

Ohanian Comment: If anyone can make sense of this, let me know. I'm all for giving schools and the students in them "partial credit," but just what does it mean to "partially read and do math at grade level?" Is it like "a little bit pregnant?"

What kind of credit was given to Birmingham schools that issue "official termination" papers to high schoolers, some on their 16th birthdays? Read the WOO story and ask yourself what adequacy means in this case.

All week we've been reading about Alabama's success, about the fact that most schools achieved proficiency status. And now another shoe drops. There seems to have been some dispensation from on high.

Certainly, it is a step in the right direction to award schools credit for student progress, any progress, instead of declaring an arbitrary pass/fail system. But I'm baffled by what's going on here. Why is Alabama being given all this slack--while other states are left dangling over a cliff? My state of Vermont has huge increase in schools "in need of improvement" while Alabama seems to shine. Go figure.

Charles J. Dean

Two significant changes in how Alabama determines if schools are succeeding or failing may have inflated the number of schools now judged to be meeting performance standards. On Monday, state school leaders announced that 87-plus percent of the state's 1,364 public schools met state standards in reading and math for school year 2005-06. That's a 53 percent increase over totals from the previous school year and an even bigger jump from two years ago, when seven in 10 public schools failed to meet state standards.

But that was before the state quietly sought and was given permission this year by the U.S. Department of Education to change its method of determining if a school meets standards.

The first change allowed the state to give half-credit to almost 156,000 students who only partially read and do math at grade level. In previous years, schools received no credit for such scores and thus received no help in meeting performance goals. This year those results helped schools meet standards.

A spot check of a few systems in the Birmingham/Hoover metro area showed that the change allowed the test scores of thousands of struggling students to count. In Bessemer, half-credit was given for the scores of more than 1,100 students. In Birmingham, that number was almost 7,600 students. In Jefferson County schools that number was more than 8,500 students. In Shelby County, the number was almost 3,850 students.

The second change, and a change being allowed only this year, let the state adjust up the scores of special education students, a change that likely allowed some systems and schools to meet standards in the only area they had failed during previous years.

State school officials said Tuesday that they will conduct a study to determine the impact the changes might have had in increasing the number of schools now meeting standards. But, those same officials said a quick review of data leads them to believe the changes did not have a major impact.

"Our estimation is the state made its goals without the help of the partial credit allowance," said Mitch Edwards, director of communications for the Alabama Department of Education.

Gloria Turner, the state's student assessment director, said that logically the changes probably did help some schools. "In places where some schools might have been close to making it, yes, the half credit might have gotten them over," Turner said.

The changes were sought to be more fair to students and schools, Turner said.

"Students at this level are not at zero in terms of what they know. They do partially meet standards, but up to now we did not recognize that fact. Now we do," Turner said.

James McLean, dean of the University of Alabama College of Education and a recognized expert in testing issues, was a member of a state Department of Education committee that recommended the state seek the change.

"One of the problems we've had in Alabama is that the state has had a fairly strict interpretation of the No Child Left Behind law," McLean said. "Other states, I think nine now, have gone to this change and I think it's a good thing, a fair thing to do."

McLean explained that he supported the change because he was afraid that under growing pressure to meet standards, some schools might ignore the needs of kids far from meeting the standards and concentrate on teaching kids who were closer to meeting standards.

"This is a change that should encourage districts to work with all their students to move them up to proficiency," McLean said. "This is a way to encourage them to work with the lowest-scoring students because they will now get credit for doing so."

McLean said the changes long-term will have no effect on the final goal of No Child Left Behind, which mandates that by 2014 all students - rich, poor, black, white and handicapped - must read and do math at proficient levels.

"This change will have no effect on meeting the 2014 mandate because all students have to be at proficient levels in reading and math by that time," said McLean.

E-mail: cdean@bhamnews.com

— Charles J. Dean
Birmingham News


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