Kallhoff: Changing standards jeopardize validity of first state report cards

Every public school and school system across Alabama Wednesday learned their grade in the first release of annual report cards.

The controversial report was mandated by the 2012 Alabama legislature with the Legislative School Performance Recognition Program Act, better known as the State Report Card Act. It assigns each system and school a grade based on an A-F scale.

The Demopolis system received a solid B at 80%. The three Demopolis campuses each received a C: DHS, 78%; DMS, 74%, and U.S. Jones Elementary, 77%. Westside Elementary received no grade since scores were based on assessments that begin in grade 3.

Demopolis School Supt. Kyle Kallhoff said the majority of the grades assigned to the schools is based on academic achievement and academic growth.

“In normal situations, one can see where this would make sense; however, the past four years of high- stakes assessments in Alabama have been anything but a ‘normal situation’,” he said.

For almost five years, a variety of education advocates and practitioners met to develop a reader-friendly report that would capture the many factors that contribute to a successful school or system.

Problems developed, however, when, in 2013, the state moved away from the Alabama Reading and Math Test for grades 3-8 and adopted the ACT Aspire as the “state assessment.” The thinking was to use a more rigorous test that aligns with the ACT, which is used as a college entrance instrument throughout our state and nation.

“Unfortunately,” said Kallhoff, “four years later we now know that the ACT Aspire is not the best choice of assessment for the students of Alabama.”

ACT Aspire provides a system of assessments to monitor progress toward college and career readiness from grade 3 through early high school, alignment with the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks, and capability for predicting outcomes on the ACT.

“This sounds attractive if all of your students are college bound,” Kallhoff continued.  Most school systems in Alabama aim to prepare students for college, careers or the military. Fewer than 50 percent of high school graduates in Alabama actually go to college. Many graduates move directly into the workforce or enlist in the military.

The ACT Aspire is meant to be used to predict how a student would perform on the ACT, not as the primary instrument used to determine the final score in school and school system report cards.

“Thankfully in June of 2017, the Alabama State School Board unanimously voted to end the contract with ACT Aspire and is currently working on a state-wide assessment that will better serve the students of Alabama,” Kallhoff said.

In January of 2017, further problems developed when the U.S. Department of Education in a letter to former state superintendent Michael Sentence questioned the alignment of the ACT Aspire to state standards. In addition to the alignment issues, several school systems reported data anomalies after the 2016 and 2017 testing.

“The State Report Card Act forces transparency in public education, and transparency is paramount when dealing with students and tax dollars,” said Kallhoff, but the data must be explained in assigning grades to schools and school systems.

The public “needs to know the recent history of Alabama’s assessment program, especially on the heels of a report card that will be based on questionable data derived from these state-wide assessments,” the superintendent continued.

Kallhoff said the administrators of Demopolis City School System “are not satisfied with this grade (of B) and refuse to fall victim to complacency.” He hopes future state report cards will use a better formula “that considers the robust make-up of our schools” and one that is more in line with the standards that schools are mandated to teach.

“Measuring the effectiveness of schools should include more than one score,” he said.