High School Graduations

Graduates from Oxford High School took center stage as they received their diplomas. Kirsten Fiscus/ The Anniston Star

The Alabama Department of Education has either done us a favor or reinforced our tired notions about public schools. I’m not sure which.

Finally — Yes, finally! — the annual report cards published online about Alabama’s public schools are usable. State officials unveiled them last week. Beforehand, those all-important reports were a mix of hieroglyphics and data and metrics. An instant headache, for sure. Career educators may have been able to easily decipher them, but for the rest of us they were time-consuming jumbles of spreadsheets and tables.

Not anymore.

Online now is a nifty site that’s intuitive.

Want to know Anniston High School’s academic achievement rate?

It’s easy to find.

Want to know Oxford High School’s rate of chronic absenteeism?

It’s easy to find.

Want to know Jacksonville High School’s percentage of homeless students?

It’s easy to find.

So, too, are the normal statistics administrators tout: graduation rates, the percentages of students who meet college and career ready standards, students’ proficiency rates by subject. It’s all there, finally formatted for those without Ph.Ds or jobs at Superintendent Eric Mackey’s office.

Which gets us back to the beginning: Has the state Education Department done Alabamians a favor, or has it provided us easy access to data that merely reaffirms our schools’ stereotypes?

You know, the ones that label Anniston’s schools as underperforming, that say Oxford and Jacksonville’s schools are Calhoun County’s best, that the county’s schools mirror public education in Alabama, some good, some middlin’, some feeding near the bottom.

Those labels, by the way, are fraught with problems: inaccuracies, unfairness, mischaracterizations. That’s how the lazy and uninformed talk about our schools — in unvarnished absolutes, not shades of gray that cover the nooks of public education.

I’ll answer that question. We’ve been given an early Christmas gift.

Information is golden. Real information, from the source, not siphoned through online aggregators that yank dated data and compile unofficial rankings of the best schools, the worst schools and those sandwiched in the middle, however they may define “best” and “worst.”  

The data on the state’s redesigned report cards are from the 2017-2018 school year; the new numbers will be released this fall. But that isn’t the point.

It’s that this informational gift is a window into our schools. Use it freely, but not to merely affirm your beliefs. Use it to learn, to question, to probe. Mackey, in comments to AL.com last week, said he hopes Alabamians will “drill down” on the data and not rely solely on those controversial letter grades the state assigns to its schools.

So, let’s drill down.

Alabama state report cards

A screenshot from the Alabama Department of Education report cards website.

I picked four local high schools — Anniston, Oxford, Jacksonville and Saks — and used the site’s “compare schools” feature to display their data side by side. A few things were unsurprising.

Anniston’s overall score, a 74, or a C, was the lowest of the four. (Don’t forget that Anniston’s system-wide scores have been improving in recent years.) 

Oxford’s overall score, an 85, or a B, was the highest of the four. 

Jacksonville’s graduation rate was 92 percent, second highest of the four.

Saks’ student population was nearly an even split — 47 percent black, 52 percent white. 

The boon for parents and educators is how trends, some positive, others disturbing, emerge.

Such as: While Anniston’s academic growth rate is high, 95.19, its academic achievement rate is low, 41.52 — a canyon-sized difference; Jacksonville’s chronic absenteeism rate, 33.65, is higher than Anniston’s; and nearly all of our local schools, save Anniston, have a dearth of minority teachers. Twenty-eight percent of Oxford High’s student population is black, but its faculty demographics fall well short of that number (4 percent).

What’s more, the educational gaps in academic achievement are stark. Surprising? Not at all. But the size of the gaps are. In three of those aforementioned high schools — Oxford, Jacksonville and Saks — the difference in academic achievement rates between white students and black students was notable.

It’s worth asking our school officials: Is that acceptable? Are there viable remedies? What are their plans to address those gaps?

By drilling down on our schools, we get an apolitical picture of their strengths, their weaknesses, perhaps even unpublicized successes hidden amid the data. But at least now we know the truth, whatever it may be.

Phillip Tutor — ptutor@annistonstar.com — is a Star columnist. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.