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Some Alabama Schools Protest Their State Designation

Almost one-third of the local schools that the state in August said "need improvement" have appealed that designation.

Among their arguments, school officials in Mobile and Baldwin counties said that the state used flawed attendance data to determine how many students showed up for standardized tests.

In some cases, officials said, the State Department of Education penalized schools after data indicated test-day absences for students who had moved away. In other cases, students were not counted as taking tests because they filled in their answer sheets incorrectly.

"My principals are categorically sure that there have been some errors and they would like to be able to correct them, even if they're ours," said Mobile County schools Superintendent Harold Dodge. "The schools just don't want any tag, any name attached to the school, and I agree with them."

Sixty-one of Mobile County's schools and 34 of Baldwin's were listed by the state as having failed to reach standards. Of those, 25 in Mobile County and five in Baldwin appealed their status.

According to new state guidelines, a school is said to need improvement if less than 95 percent of the students took either the Alabama Reading and Mathematics Test, for elementary and middle schools, or the Alabama High School Graduation Exam. This is the first time that the state has held schools accountable for "test participation," as required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Other factors -- attendance and actual test scores -- were also used to measure schools in a complicated formula involving up to 38 categories of goals that each school needed to accomplish. If any group of students in any race or economic background did not meet test participation, attendance or performance goals, the entire school failed.

Eighty percent of Alabama's schools -- 1,361 schools -- failed to achieve standards. State officials said two-thirds of those failed solely due to test participation. In contrast, only 30 percent of Alabama's schools performed poorly on the tests.

If a school falls below state standards two years in a row, students there can transfer to better-performing schools. The state removes that student option if a school improves for two years.

"If you don't correct it this first year," Dodge said, "it puts you in a three-year cycle. In essence, you could be on the list for three years."

Statewide, 27 percent of the schools given failing marks have appealed, according to Gloria Turner, testing coordinator with the Education Department.

Turner said Friday that the state will make a final ruling on those appeals on a school-by-school basis, but she did not have a timetable for action. Turner said that a vast majority of appeals concerned the state's attendance data.

The state used school reports taken during the first 120 days of attendance to determine how many students should have been tested. But in some cases, the test was given four or five weeks later, so the data did not reflect the number of students who departed during that time.

This year, she said, the state will count the attendance closer to the actual test dates to avoid such problems. "Last year, we didn't have such a database in place, so we did the best that we could," Turner said. "Now, we're working with the schools to get it as it should be."

At Forest Hill Elementary in northwest Mobile, the school missed the participation mark because three pupils moved to other schools but were counted by the state as being on Forest Hill's attendance rolls. Another student couldn't take the test because he was in the hospital, officials said.

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

In Baldwin County, "the schools felt like we tested all the kids we have that were here," said Cindy Marshall with the system's Instructional Resources Division.

When principals and others received the state reports, "they couldn't believe it, they were just dumbfounded," she said.

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

"It's not fair for our scores not to be at 100 percent when they should have been," she said. "Basically we just wanted the state department to know that we had tested everybody and their scoring was inaccurate."

Principals expressed other concerns as well.

Four pupils at west Mobile's Dodge Elementary School who took a make-up test were never counted, said Principal Doris Tillman. While state records indicate that 72 of the school's 77 poor children took the test, Tillman said 76 did.

"These children were absent, so we called the parents to make sure they were here for a make-up test," Tillman said. "We knew that it was very important and we made all of the efforts we could to get them here."

Jacquelyn Zeigler, principal at Mary B. Austin Elementary in Spring Hill, said many of her students missed the Alabama Reading and Mathematics Test, given for the first time last year, because it was administered the week that most of the local private schools have spring break. Having older brothers or sisters in those schools, she said, many children went on family vacations that week.

Had she known that participation would be weighted so heavily, she said, she would have done more to make sure the students were in school. "I would've gone down to the beachfront and gotten them if I could've," Zeigler said.

"It was very confusing. Now that we know what is being asked, we can step up to the plate and do it," Zeigler said. "Usually, 100 percent of my students take the Stanford and 100 percent take the CRTs (quarterly tests). I'm not hiding any children."

Zeigler said this shouldn't be an issue this year because public and private school breaks will coincide.

— Rena Havner & Penelope Deese
Mobile Register


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