The Alabama State Board of Education must be in awe of Tommy Bice, Alabama’s State Superintendent of Education. It appears they believe he is the great one who will lead us to the promise land of achieving academic excellence for Alabama’s school children. They have gone along with most every recommendation he has presented to them apparently because they think he knows what’s best for Alabama’s schools and will do whatever it takes to garner federal dollars. As I recently sat in a meeting of the Senate’s Education Committee, Tommy Bice walked in and members of the Committee reacted as though an internationally renowned dignitary had walked in. Their overwhelming responses to every word he said was a bit embarrassing. It was as if “E. F. Hutton” had spoken.
At a time when student achievement in Alabama and across the nation is lagging behind the standards and performance of other countries, the federal-initiated Common Core Standards were created and then called “state-initiated standards” (only 15% state) . Despite an abundance of reliable opposition by credible educators involved with the development process at the national level and their denouncing this boondoggle of an unpiloted, non-research-based set of standards, Superintendent Bice convinced the majority of the members of Alabama State Board of Education it was best for Alabama…along with the federal dollars attached to other programs if Alabama bought into Common Core Standards and assessments. That’s now old news and the full implementation of what is entitled “College and Career-Ready Standards” was implemented and approved perhaps in an effort to make Common Core more palatable. However, to “win” the “Plan 2020” several changes were made. First, Superintendent Bice persuaded the State Board of Education to drop the long-standing validated exam to graduate with a high school diploma. It sure appears that this change was made, at least in part, in an effort to increase the graduation rate as Alabama’s rate had been dismal. The graduation exam had served for years as a reliable measurement of the fundamentals every student should have achieved in order to earn a diploma of some worth. The high school graduation exam was replaced with the new assessments ACT Plan for 2014-2015 and, beginning with the 2015-2016 the ACT Aspire 10 - both to be aligned with the Alabama College- and Career-Ready Standards, standards from the so-called Common Core State Standards Initiative developed with direct involvement of the U.S. Department of Education.
• Plan 2020 seeks to achieve a 90 percent graduation rate and ensure all high school graduates are prepared for college or career by the year 2020. Whoa!! The ACT Plan replaces Alabama’s long-standing validated graduation exam. To meet the Career-and College-Ready Standards for graduation students need make benchmark (or pass) only one of the subjects of the on the ACT exam. The minimums CCRS benchmark numbers on the ACT exam are as follows: Mathematics – 22; English – 18; Reading – 22; and Science – 23. You will notice no social science topics are included for assessment. Here are options which qualify students to graduate from high school:
• Pass or score at benchmark on at any one of the four CCRS indicators as listed above
• Meet qualifying scored on the Advanced Placement Exam
• Approved Transcript by any Alabama College or Post-secondary School While in High School
• Score “Silver” or higher on the ACT “WorkKeys”, a lower level assessment for math and reading
There are other “special” less rigorous options for students who fail to pass the regular classroom, teacher-instructed courses. For-profit companies like “K12”, “National High School”, “The Keystone School” and “Edgenuity” offer online courses for high school credit. The credit recovery courses have serious drawbacks as they are delivered online with little face-to-face teaching support. Investigations across the country have turned up cases of students answering multiple-choice tests and getting a semester’s worth of credit in just a few weeks. Robin Nelson, Program Coordinator of Instructional Services with the Alabama State Department of Education estimates that 80 percent of high schools in Alabama utilize some form of credit recovery when students struggle passing regular courses.
There are two major achievement and assessment models used to measure the success of schools. These are the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) Renewal and Alabama’s Annual Measureable Objectives (AMO). Anyone who believes education decisions are or should be made at eh local and/or state level should be informed otherwise.
The ALSDE’s target for the overall remediation rate for 2014 was 23%, but the actual rate was 32.1%, up from 31.8% from 2013. Then there is the issue College- and Career-Ready Standards” of Alabama’s high school graduates. State Superintendent Tommy Bice shared his plans with the State Board of Education for helping Alabama’s high school graduates avoid unnecessary remedial classes in college. While Alabama’s high school graduation rate has soared from 72% in 2011 to a record-high 86% in 2014, the college remediation rate has increased. The remediation rate refers to the percentage of students who graduate from an Alabama public high school in the spring of one year, and then enroll in remedial math or English at their college during their freshman year. The measure only takes into account students who are enrolled in Alabama public two- or four-year colleges and universities. Fifty-one percent those graduates went on to an Alabama college and 32 percent of those took remedial courses which earn no college credit. While the numbers of students from school districts around the state vary, approximately three-fourths of the Bessemer City Schools graduates had to take remedial courses during their freshman year.
When the strategy or game plan includes subtle rule changes to achieve goals, it is high time the Alabama State Board of Education begins scrutinizing where Alabama is headed in terms of legitimately educating our students for success. We should ask these questions: Are we really interested in the standards and measurable achievements of our children which will prepare them for success? If 60 percent of those Alabama’s high school graduates who attend college in Alabama require some form of remediation after enrolling at their college or university what does that tell us about the level of preparation provided by Alabama’s public schools? Isn’t this just pushing our students out and not up to the college level unprepared, placing the efforts of preparation on colleges? Changing the rules of the game to reach a goal is not legitimate and the outcomes are not real.
Dr. David Nichols is a veteran educator having served in a variety of administrative positions in public schools. He also has the distinction of serving on a City Board of Education and a County Board of Education, both in Alabama. He has been a consultant to struggling, at risk schools across Alabama.