As Alabama prepares to release its first A-F Report Card since the early 2000’s, the public needs to be cautious in interpreting the new school grades. First, and most importantly, these grades come largely (almost entirely) from one test, the ACT Aspire, which is a test that was discontinued by the State Board of Education in 2017 due to a number of concerns which the Board discussed in open session. Superintendent’s understand and appreciate the difficulty inherent in developing a reporting system like the one being designed by our State Department of Education. In fact, superintendents fully participated alongside parents, teachers, and others in the long-running Accountability Committee tasked with developing a Report Card framework. This work has continued across the service of four State Superintendents. Unfortunately, much of the best work of the Committee has been removed from the current SDE template, but we are hopeful future iterations of the report card will be more fair and balanced. The SDE has made it clear that this is a “prototype,” meaning that it is still an incomplete product — a first attempt.
All tests have a limited degree of reliability, but the 2017 administration of ACT Aspire appears to contain an inordinate number of inexplicable issues that call to question the reliability and validity of the scores. School boards and administrators, community members, and the media should all be aware of these issues. They should take into consideration not just the results on this test, but also other factors when determining the appropriateness of instruction in their community schools.
The State Board of Education discontinued the use of ACT Aspire, in part, due to concerns about alignment of the test to Alabama’s teaching standards. The U.S. Department of Education declared that alignment could not be proven. Nevertheless, even though inexplicable data issues lead to questions about the test and/or scoring accuracy, it should also be noted the test does offer useful data on individual student basis, especially in examining readiness for college. Many schools and school systems have invested time and resources – factors evident in improved student performance. Teachers are using the test results as one marker in evaluating instruction and learning, but at the same time are realizing that this test offers only one viewpoint, has limited applicability, and includes some unexplained scoring questions.
After the State School Board decided to utilize the ACT Aspire, it was also decided by the SDE to set cut scores at the designated “college-ready” level benchmarked all the way down to third grade. This sets an exceptionally high bar for Alabama students to be marked “ready”, or Level 3, on a 4-level scale. Benchmarking proficiency to the “college-ready” standard sets a very high standard for our students and should not be interpreted inaccurately in regard to how students are actually performing.
Measuring and rewarding student growth is an appropriate goal. However, “growth” on this test is a way to measure students compared to each other rather than measuring their growth toward academic excellence. Because students are being compared to one another, the system guarantees winners and losers.
Attendance has long been a staple measure for reporting systems. In the past, attendance percentages for the entire student body have been the key to measuring this dynamic. For many reasons, there is a national discussion about shifting to a measure of “chronic absenteeism” instead. Alabama has indicated, through the ESSA plan that it will be moving toward this new measurement in the future. Now, schools are being graded on something after the completion of the year that had never been discussed before. Because the chronic absenteeism definition includes all students absences, regardless of the reason, many students ended up on the “chronic” list due to illnesses, participation in extracurricular and athletic activities, and student clubs and programs.
As strong believers in public education, we believe reporting to the public is essential. Nevertheless, the reporting systems should be fair, accurate, and transparent. While this report card includes some relevant and important data, it also opens the door for misuse of data and misinterpretation. It is my hope that the information gleaned from this instrument be used constructively to improve schools in our system.
Dennis R. Coe, Ed.D.
Crenshaw County Schools