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EDITORIAL: Gov. Ivey is right; State should drop ‘failing school’ label

ANNISTON STAR EDITORIAL BOARD

The Alabama Accountability Act has always been a flawed piece of legislation.

From the time it was passed in 2013, skeptics have challenged the component of the law that allows students in schools deemed as failing to transfer to a non-failing school in the same district, and to take with them the public funding they would have received at the failing school.

So, while offering no resources, no initiatives, no direction for improving a failing school, the law also allows for the removal of financial resources connected to the individual students.

Also, among multiple tweaks to the law since its passage was the (not so) brilliant idea to designate all schools that score in the bottom 6 percent on standardized tests as “failing.”

That means, no matter how much any of Alabama’s schools improve or how well they do, 6 percent of them will ALWAYS be designated as “failing.” Even if every school in the state performed among the best in the country, the bottom 6 percent of our schools would still be labeled “failing” under the Alabama Accountability Act.

It makes absolutely no sense.

That’s part of why Gov. Kay Ivey on Thursday asked Deputy State Superintendent Dr. Daniel Boyd if the failing label could be changed

“I know that the law says you have to identify the bottom 6 percent. Can we call them something else besides failing?” Ivey asked, generating a round of applause and overwhelming support from  state school board members, according to an article by Caroline Beck, a reporter with Anniston Star news partner Alabama Daily News.

State Superintendent Eric Mackey agreed that the terminology needs to be changed, but also said he wants to look at how that bottom 6 percent of schools is determined.

It seems clear that the designation serves no beneficial purpose. What it does is lower the morale of students in those schools, and makes it more difficult to hire at those schools teachers who might actually help improve performance.

Indeed, local schools, including those in the Anniston and Talladega systems, have been under the cloud of the “failing” label in recent years. Currently, Talladega High is the only area school on the list, but others continue to wrestle against the stigma even after they elevate off the list.

Anniston High Principal Charles Gregory said the governor is to be commended for seeking to have the label removed.

“That label unjustly stigmatizes our schools because there are too many variables to use a few indicator points to determine if a school is a failure,” he said. “I would welcome the change because there are many great things happening, not only at our school, but at schools across the state and nation, and we should do all we can to celebrate those accomplishments and allot the necessary resources needed to address any challenges.”

Anniston School Board President Robert Houston said he thinks it is an excellent idea to drop the failing label.

“Telling a child that their school is a failure gets into the psyche of a child,” he said. “It may make them believe that they’re a failure. Just because you fall short on a test doesn’t make you a failure. We need to find a different notation to encourage students to do better, not to make them feel bad about themselves by telling them that they’re a failure.”

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, was the original sponsor of the Accountability Act. William Califf, a spokesperson for Marsh, said the senator proposed legislation to change the label several years ago, but it did not pass.

“Since we are ranked last in the nation in education, programs like the Alabama Accountability Act are vital to many students and parents, and we welcome any good faith discussion that would help strengthen this program,” he told ADN.

This Editorial Board’s view is not to say we should not have standards and continue encouraging all of our schools — teachers, administrators, students, parents — to strive for higher achievement. But that performance should be assessed by measuring schools against their previous year’s performance, identifying weaknesses and problem areas, and offering resources to help achieve better performance. 

Holding a school system accountable to itself would be real accountability.

A school that is steadily, over time, improving its performance is, by definition, not failing.

The sooner that designation is removed and educators can focus their efforts on teaching students instead of battling demoralizing labels, the better.

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