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State reports cards miss the mark

During the past several months, our community has had several opportunities to be extremely proud of the students, teachers and administrators at Russellville City Schools because of the achievements, honors and recognition we have received–things that are no doubt the result of hard work, dedication and a pursuit of excellence that we try to instill each day in our schools.

On February 1, our community will have another opportunity to be proud of our system and our schools as the first ever state report card grades are released. While the specific scores are embargoed until this time, I want to say that I am pleased with the scores RCS received.

However, even though I am pleased with our scores, I am still disappointed today in our state leadership for making teachers, students and administrators across the state feel less than what they are through these scores.

Grades (ranked A-F) for the state report cards are determined primarily on ONE SINGLE TEST, the ACT Aspire, which is a standardized test that was given over a one-week period that won’t even be administered any more because it was found to not fully align with state standards.

For schools without a grade 12 (elementary and middle schools), 90 percent of the school score comes from an invalid test. And our schools, our teachers and our students are MORE THAN A SCORE.

The state report card unfairly reduces countless hours of classroom instruction and dedication to a single score for the purpose of promoting the School Accountability Act, which takes public tax dollars and gives them to private schools. While I am pleased with the scores RCS received (especially considering how these grades were determined), it is abundantly clear that our system, and many other deserving systems across the state, are being punished by an unfair grading system. Unfortunately, they never had a chance with this formula to receive an “A” or “B”, regardless of how strong the school is.

In the past several months, Russellville High School has been named a 2017 CLAS School of Distinction; RCS was chosen to host the statewide AP Celebration thanks to the amazing growth shown on our students’ AP scores from last year to this past year (a 122-percent increase); at that celebration, Russellville was named the first School of Excellence by A+ College Ready, which was a great honor for our system; and Russellville High School was named the #1 Standout High School in Alabama by Niche.com.

With all of these accolades, it would seem that Russellville City Schools would have more than an ample opportunity to receive top scores on the state report card, but because it doesn’t factor in the unique challenges that each district faces with equal weight–things such as poverty, local funding, the number of English Language Learners (ELL) and special education students a school or district has, and other factors–then these state report card grades can not be a true reflection of how well a system or school is educating its students.

One way I know this is by the way RHS was chosen as the #1 Standout High School in Alabama. Niche.com, a nationally recognized school ranking site, came to this determination by not only considering test scores but also factoring in the percentage of students considered to be economically disadvantaged; the percentage of economically disadvantaged students who are math and reading proficient; the percentage of economically disadvantaged students who graduate high school; the percentage of minority students who graduate; and the student racial diversity index.

When these unique challenges were considered along with our test scores, Russellville came out on top. When all of the factors that go into educating our students were acknowledged, we were the number one high school in the state of Alabama. This is because these things matter.

At RCS, we are proud of our diversity and those challenges that make us stronger, build good character and make all of us better, both individually and as a whole. But we, along with many other districts statewide, face challenges that other districts may not face. A higher percentage of ELL students, a higher percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch–these things aren’t excuses, they are simply the facts of what our educational environment looks like. And instead of making excuses for the challenges these situations present, we are educating students at a high level and seeing significant growth from both teachers and students. This should be recognized on something as important as a state report card.

We need to think about what this current kind of scoring says. If we were judging the socioeconomic makeup of communities, then this might be an accurate scoring mechanism, but it is woefully inadequate in scoring a school’s effectiveness and quality. The report card doesn’t take into account scholarships received, school accolades, student involvement, teacher degrees, or professional and instructional growth, etc., and this is a flaw that should not be overlooked.

If we continue with an A-F grading system that doesn’t account for these challenges, all of the affluent schools in our state will continue to score “As”, schools in the middle of affluence and poverty will struggle to stay above average, and the more impoverished schools will consistently score “Ds” and “Fs”. How is this fair? Do we need a state report card to tell us that?  How is it even remotely accurate to let a school’s poverty level be a judge of how well a school is doing?

Our teachers are working extremely hard. Our teachers are learning and growing now probably more than they ever have in their life instructionally. I see that translating into amazing instruction in classrooms each day. I know our teachers are doing an amazing job and our students are growing. Why? As an effective system with effective school leaders, we monitor this growth and progress regularly and we see the results. These types of processes are truly what schools should be scored on to determine effectiveness, and that can’t be measured with a single score.

As an educator, I welcome accountability. I welcome the opportunity to see where we as a system need to improve and where we have the most room to grow. I want to know what we can work on so that our students can receive the best education possible, because that’s what all of this is about, after all.

But if we’re going to do this, if we’re going to grade all of the school systems and individual schools in our state, it needs to be done in a way that is fair and that takes into account more than one test score, because the real measure of learning, achievement and success can not be reduced down to one single test.

As school and district leaders, we should already know if we are being effective or not. At RCS, we do, and I can answer that with a resounding “yes." One score can not define all the growth and the amazing things happening in our district. 

Heath Grimes

Superintendent

Russellville City Schools

 

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