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Something fishy about “failing schools” list

By Larry Lee

The State Department of Education just released the latest “failing schools” list, an annual ranking is required by the infamous Alabama Accountability Act. The Legislature decreed that the bottom six percent of all public schools are “failing” and should be identified annually.

So lists were distributed in June 2013 and January 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017.

This always causes an outcry from educators they think some schools that face great challenges are being unfairly labeled (The list tells us each year is what we already know, schools with high poverty levels and high minority populations face an uphill battle).

There are 75 schools on the 2017 list with 45,547 students and an African-American population of 83.8 percent.

One of the faults of this legislation is that while it identifies “failing schools”, it does not try to help them. It’s as if the school nurse takes the temperature of 300 children and finds 50 have a fever. But instead of giving aspirin or sending them to the doctor, she just pats each on the head and says, “I hope you feel better.” And my old Southern Baptist heart tells me this is morally wrong.

In the past, the great majority of “failing schools” were either middle or junior high schools. The first list had 49 such schools. This is hardly a surprise to any experienced educator.

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But the recent list of 75 shows only 16 middle or junior highs and 43 high schools that are grades 9 through 12 (Some high schools are still K-12 or 7-12, they are not included in the 43).

What happened? Testing changed. We now use the ACT Aspire test for 10th graders and this is the only score that counts for a school grade for a 9-12 high school.

This is where reality kicks in.

I turned 16 in January of my sophomore year of high school. I got a driver’s license, though I had been driving tractors and trucks on the farm for years. I could go to the Skyline Drive-in on Highway 90 just south of Mobile on Saturday night when Daddy let me use the car. Suddenly I was one of the smartest people in the world. If mother and daddy were still alive, they could verify that statement.
School? It was where I smiled at the girls and played ball.

Kids today are a lot like I was, except they know about smart phones gadgets I don’t understand. So they take another assessment, one they know makes ABSOLUTELY no difference in their grades. In fact, some teachers have told me that they are required to announce to their 10th grade test takers that the score will not help or hurt them.

But while the students are taking a (to them meaningless) test, teachers, principals and administrators are sweating bullets. Their entire school will be judged according to how a bunch of 16 year olds with raging hormones perform.

It is all part of the great illusion some consider “accountability.”

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And while the media goes into a feeding frenzy about the new “failing school” list and politicians pound their chests and pontificate about how terrible our schools are, that 10th grader is trying to find a date for Saturday night.

It all adds up to just one more good reason why the accountability act should be repealed.

Larry Lee is a public school advocate and co-author of the study, “Lessons Learned From Rural Schools.”


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