Local schools systems receive letter grades from State

Published 3:00 am Saturday, February 3, 2018

The Alabama Department of Education has handed out letter grades to state school systems for the first time in a decade and both local school systems received passing grades.

The Pike County Schools system received a B, scoring an 84 out of 100 based on multiple factors. The Troy City Schools received a C, scoring 79 out of 100.

Dr. Mark Bazzell, superintendent, said it is important to understand the breakdown of what the system has achieved instead of just seeing a letter grade.

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“I’m not sure how informative a single grade is when it relates to a school or school system, but given the criteria, the grades we got are about where we think we’re at,” Bazzell said. “I certainly believe there are certain areas we deserve an ‘A+’: closing the achievement gap, growth of achievement and dual enrollment opportunities are areas where we certainly shine above a B.”

There are five “accountability indicators” in the report – academic achievement, achievement growth, graduation rate, college and career readiness and chronic absenteeism – that factor into the overall grade.

The academic growth indicator, based on academic improvement in reading and math for students over three years, is one of the highest marks for the school system at 96.95 percent – over 9 points higher than the state average.

“We’ve tried to raise the expectations across the board,” Bazzell said. “It’s very important that all of us believe our kids can do well. If we apply those things that research shows to work and we engage kids every day in the classrooms, you’re going to see growth. I think that’s the most important thing … changing the culture where everybody believes in the kids.”

Bazzell said that philosophy has also helped the school system tackle the achievement gap for students in poverty.

“Our biggest barrier is poverty,” Bazzell said. “We have over 70 percent of students on free and reduced lunch and that sometimes is viewed as a barrier to kids doing well. We’re going to do the things we need to do to make sure that is not a barrier. You can see that we’ve closed that gap in comparison to the student population as a whole, and that data is very encouraging.”

The school system also made a B mark with an 85.2 percent graduation rate, which is slightly under the state average of 87.

“Our goal is to graduate every student that enters ninth grade in four years,” Bazzell said. “I think our credit recovery program and dropout prevention program is designed towards making sure that happens. There are always going to be kids who, for no reason under our control, won’t finish; but we try to save every kid that we can.”

The system got a C on college and career readiness with a score of 77, but that number is 11 points higher than the state average of 66. The number reflects the percentage of four-year students with at least one of the college and career-ready indicators.

“I think you can attribute that to our number of kids we have in dual enrollment programs,” Bazzell said. “We have 107 kids enrolled in dual enrollment programs. Right now, 23 percent of eligible students are enrolled and our target is at least 35 percent enrolled in a dual enrollment program. Getting college credit is one way to be college and career ready.” Bazzell said the hope is for the other students to be ready for the workforce.

The school received a B score for chronic absenteeism with only 16.28 percent of students missing 15 days or more. The state average is 17.68 percent.

Finally, the school scored a D on academic achievement with 67.53 percent of students “proficient” in math and reading. The score is still higher than the state average of 60.27 percent.

“There’s a lot of debate out there whether a single grade should be given that reflects how an entire school or system is doing,” Bazzell said. “I haven’t spent a lot of time worrying about it … We’re pleased with where we’re at, but certainly not satisfied. We’re going to continue to push to raise those achievement levels and also to close the gap.”

Dr. Lee Hicks, superintendent at Troy City Schools, took issue with the way the academic achievement score was calculated.

“From the beginning process of when this started back in 2012 to now, the formula changed so many times we never really knew what we were being judged on,” Hicks said. “The current formula was not finalized until late December and the results were coming back in early January. Even now can’t get a clear answer at state department of who made the decisions of judging things. When you use a standardized test – it was ACT Aspire – that is no longer offered by the state, to me that doesn’t show the success of our school system.”

The school system graded out with 54.28 percent of students proficient in math and reading according to the state’s data with Charles Henderson High School at just 31.33 percent of students proficient.

“Are we proud? Absolutely not,” Hicks said. “But we always work on improving. We stand on what we can control and the quality of education our students do receive. Standardized tests should never be used to decide if a student or a school is going to be successful; you have to look at the entirety of it … We know we have an outstanding school system and would encourage anybody to look at our system and what we offer to our students. I feel like we’re second to none.”

Hicks argued that state officials threw out the ACT Aspire testing specifically because it was found not to adequately match the curriculum.

There were some indicators that the system did excel in as well.

Out of the three local high schools, CHHS topped them all with a graduation rate of 90.80 percent.

“When I first arrived we were at 58 percent,” Hicks said. “We have steadily gone up and for the upcoming year we should be around 90 or 91 percent again. We work with them very hard and have stop-gaps in place. We counsel with them and find things that they can relate to. The days of someone showing up and saying ‘I want to quit school’ and filling out the paperwork have been over since I got here.”

Academic growth was also right above par with the state average at 88.17 percent of students showing improvement and Hicks said recent changes have the school’s college and career readiness percentage above state levels at 69 percent.

“When we went to block system they had more electives,” Hicks said. “The could choose a track they wanted to take. As they chose these tracks, many chose to go into business track or work in conjunction with tech center. We went from filling probably 5 to 10 percent of our slots at the (Pike Technology Center) to 100 percent because they can work it into their schedules without giving up another class. They can pursue every angle.”

The system did have a high rate of chronic absenteeism according to the data, but Hicks said that was another failing in part due to the way the state classified it.

“There was a lot of frustration throughout the state with this process,” Hicks said. “It does not account for excused absences. There are field trips or athletic trips that would be classified as an absence by state, but classified present in the eyes of the school. It doesn’t take into account excused absences for college visits or anything.”