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Schools Dispute Failing Grades

MONTGOMERY - Faulty test results have unfairly labeled perhaps hundreds of schools as failing to meet standards, Alabama superintendents, principals and school groups contend.

The uproar has led a state Board of Education member to ask the superintendent to hold off on sanctions against some schools until results have been rechecked.

"If I were the state superintendent, I would challenge these results," said state board member Mary Jane Caylor of Huntsville. "I think when something is this unfair, this disruptive and at this point certainly in question in terms of the accuracy of the results, I think the superintendent should not act on these results."

At the heart of most of the complaints are new standards mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind law, which requires schools to test at least 95 percent of their students. Tests results released Aug. 12 showed that 76.5 percent of the state's 1,361 schools failed to meet the standards mandated by the federal law. About 600 of those failed because they didn't have 95 percent of their students take each of the tests given, as the law requires. In the Birmingham/Hoover metro area alone, 110 schools failed because they didn't meet the 95 percent standard.

But many principals and superintendents from Mobile to Huntsville dispute the state's data showing they failed to hit the 95 percent participation mark.

To determine whether a school tested at least 95 percent of its students, the state compared the number of students who took the exams to the number of students enrolled at each school on the 120th day of classes. Typically, the 120th day of class falls in early February, depending on when a particular district starts the school year.

The exams were given in April, about two months after the state's cutoff for establishing how many students should be tested to meet the 95 percent requirement. That left lots of time for a particular school's head count to change.

The state anticipated a possible problem with students leaving school after the 120-day count, but officials thought much of the problem could be dealt with by having each student put his or her Social Security number, birth date and proper name on test answer sheets. The theory was that such information would allow the state to track a student who had moved to another school after the 120-day count and credit the school he or she had left with having tested that child.

In fact, the state maintains it successfully tracked up to 97 percent of students using that system. And next year, the state will have a new computer system that officials say will allow them to track 100 percent of such students.

But this year, school officials acknowledge that the tracking system did not work when a student misprinted a Social Security number or birth date or did not use his or her formal name, as found on the school rolls. For example, a student listed on the rolls as Robert Jones might write Bobby Jones on the text answer sheet. If that happened, the computer would not read the data and thus would have reported the student as not tested, school officials said.

Principals Arlen Williams of Birmingham's Price Elementary School and Stephanie Hendrix of Jefferson County's Hueytown Elementary School tell typical stories about the consequences of the state's failure to account for their changing enrollments.

Williams said Price would have met the 95 percent requirement if the school had not been held accountable for one student who transferred to another school.

"We are a small school with about 240 students," said Williams. "I had one student - one - who left us March 1. I have that student's withdrawal form. ... I've done the calculations ... . I know the state is not right."

Price met the academic standards in reading and math, with 81 percent of students meeting reading standards and 79 percent meeting math standards.

"We worked so hard to get our kids ready to do well, and they did great," Williams said. "Yet my school is labeled as failing because we didn't test enough kids, and we did. I can't tell you how frustrating, how hurt we are."

Hueytown's Hendrix is equally frustrated.

"According to our data ... we tested every child we were supposed to test except one student who was on vacation with his family at the time of the test," Hendrix said. "Yet the state data shows we tested just 86.21 percent of all our kids. I can't for the life of me track why the state shows our participation was low. It looks like something screwy is going on. I don't know who they think I didn't test."

Like the students at Price, Hueytown Elementary students met state standards in reading and math.

Hendrix said those results, coupled with first lady Laura Bush's visit to the school last month to look at how it is using the summer to give extra help to struggling students, should represent points of pride for the school and community. Yet Hendrix said the school is now labeled as not meeting standards.

"All of this is so demoralizing," Hendrix said.

Birmingham schools Superintendent Wayman Shiver Jr., like a number of other superintendents across the state, said he will appeal to state schools Superintendent Joe Morton to take a second look at schools such as Price.

"This is just one grand mess," Shiver said. "My principals tell me they tested every student, or almost every student, who was on the rolls there for the test. Yet the state is telling them they didn't meet the requirement. If this was just Birmingham I would be suspicious we didn't do something right. But this is across the state, and that tells me the state got it wrong."

Mobile County schools Superintendent Harold Dodge sees it that way, too.

"I don't know if I've ever seen such frustration," Dodge said. "We've run how the state calculates the 95 percent participation rate over and over on our schools, and we only get the numbers they get about 40 percent of the time. I think there's a good chance the state got some of this wrong. If I stand to be corrected, the state superintendent will have to correct me."

Jefferson County schools Superintendent Phil Hammonds said there is "a lot of uncertainty" in his system and across the state about the data. "If we test 100 percent of the children in our schools, or almost 100 percent, and still don't reach the standard, that's frustrating," he said.

Homewood Superintendent Jodi Newton, whose schools were among the best in the state on the reading and math portions of the exams but failed on the 95 percent rule, agrees.

"Last week I was probably as frustrated as I've been," Newton said. "I think the state did the best it could, but I don't think they had the capacity to handle all this data. I'm not sure they realized some of the problems, like the time lag between the 120-day count and test time, that might prove to be as crucial as it appears to be."

In a memo last week to the state's 130 superintendents, Morton set Aug. 27 as the deadline for them to submit challenges to the results. Morton recounted efforts his department made to educate superintendents and principals about the requirements of law, but he acknowledged that things had not gone smoothly.

"Although Alabama Department of Education staff intended to and believed that they were clearly communicating this information, we now realize that the message was not adequately communicated. We are making a commitment to improve our communication in the future and I will assume full responsibility for any shortcomings in past communications and recommit my efforts to better communications in the future."

— Charles J. Dean
Birmingham News


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