A teacher's day

A student raises her hand to ask a question during Lisa Mallett's 4th-grade math class at Pleasant Valley Elementary School. 

When Donna Harbin was in kindergarten, class meant playing with blocks, doing dress-up and gathering for story time. Basically, learning how to be in a classroom with other kids.

Today at Pleasant Valley Elementary, where Harbin is assistant principal, kindergarteners are learning to read for themselves. They’re skip-counting — one, three, five, seven — and know that “subitizing” is the word for counting numbers by just looking at them, Harbin said.

Teachers at Pleasant Valley can rattle off a list of things they’re doing to help kids understand math. But it’s still unclear why Pleasant Valley posted some of the county’s best math scores in the second year of Alabama’s new standardized tests — tests that have produced grim results for most schools for a second year in a row.

“We’re doing a lot of the same things other schools are doing,” Harbin said.

Pleasant Valley’s math scores — with more than 70 percent of third-graders meeting or exceeding grade-level expectations — are just one of the mysteries to emerge from two years of statewide testing using the ACT Aspire and ACT Plan, Alabama’s replacements for the old No Child Left Behind testing regime.

For a decade, under NCLB’s federal mandate the state tested kids in reading and math and issued yearly reports that summarized every school’s progress. Schools with low scores — or with low scores for subgroups of students such as minority kids or those below the poverty line — got what amounted to a public warning, through placement on a list of schools that needed improvement.

Some schools, typically in high-poverty communities, stayed on the list for years, gaining reputations as “failed” schools. Most institutions stayed clear of that warning list.

Alabama’s new test paints a much grimmer picture. For two years, fewer than half of the kids tested statewide in grades 3 through 8 have tested as proficient in reading. A little more than half are proficient in math in the lower grades, with the numbers dropping below half in higher grades.

The numbers seem to upend much of the conventional wisdom about schools that was built up during No Child Left Behind. Schools that did poorly under the old system often did worse on the new test — but schools that seemed OK on the old test don’t look nearly as good under the Aspire.

In reading, 89 percent of Constantine Elementary third-graders scored “in need of support” — the lowest rung on the test. In Piedmont, the number was 51 percent. At Saks, 52 percent. Throw in the second tier — “close” to ready — and most area schools saw a majority of kids not up to state reading standards.

State schools Superintendent Tommy Bice saw it coming, not just here but across Alabama. Under the old school testing system, he said, school officials thought student performance was improving. Real-world results showed they weren’t.

“The last time we gave the Alabama High School Graduation Exam, 97 percent of the entire senior class of the state of Alabama passed all five parts,” Bice said. “And we celebrated that. When that same senior class, two months later, entered two-year and four-year colleges, 34 percent of them needed remediation.”

Individual schools, too, once celebrated making AYP — the adequate yearly progress required by No Child Left Behind. Back then, most schools made the cut. But at the same time a different snapshot — a nationwide test called the National Assessment of Educational Progress — showed only about a quarter of the state’s kids proficient in reading.

The Aspire, Bice said, was designed to test to a higher standard. Created by the same organization that handles the ACT college entrance exam, the test is supposed to measure a student’s path toward that entrance exam, or toward skills kids will later use on the job.

“The only way to get better is to take a brutal, unvarnished look at your situation,” Bice said, citing the book “Good to Great.”

Calhoun County school officials say the reading numbers aren’t as good as they’d hoped — but they’re testing skills that weren’t being looked at just a few years ago. For instance, third-graders are now expected not only to read and write but to support their arguments with evidence, said Holly Box, director of curriculum for county schools.

“Before, they were just reading and retaining knowledge,” Box said. “There would be a knowledge-based question like, what color was the boy’s shirt?”

None of the area’s schools delivered a knockout performance on the reading assessment. Elementary math was better, with various schools in different systems — Oxford elementaries, as well as White Plains, Ohatchee and Cobb Elementary— getting numbers in the same ballpark as Pleasant Valley.

School officials see that as an encouraging sign. The state’s latest math standards were in place before the reading standards, meaning schools may already be learning how to adapt to the new approach. That could also explain by students in the higher grades — who learned math under the older approach — didn’t perform nearly as well at most schools.

Pleasant Valley Principal Alicia Laros said the school has tried to incorporate math outside the math classroom, even in P.E.

“The coach will have them work on math while they’re exercising,” Laros said, imitating a jumping-jacks cadence. “‘Three-times-three-is-nine. Three-times-four-is-twelve.’”

But the math on the test now is a lot more complicated than remembering multiplication tables, incorporating higher-level concepts about how math works.

Laros and Harbin say they’ve worked to bring up scores by looking closely at students’ test data, using project-based learning, incorporating new classroom behavior rules, allowing students to bring electronic devices for Web-based research if they have them. Many of those techniques have been cited by other administrators, at other local schools.

Box cited another possible advantage for Pleasant Valley: The students stay with the school. A rural community dotted with subdivisions and farms, the area has relatively few rental properties and few people moving out. Laros said a child in kindergarten here is fairly likely to graduate from Pleasant Valley High, across the street.

“We know these children, and they know us,” Laros said.

Two years into the new testing regime, the state school superintendent said, the state is just getting to know who was getting left behind under No Child Left Behind. NCLB did help some special education students, he said, who were expected to meet the same basic standards as other students. But once students showed a basic proficiency, Bice said, their progress was ignored.

“Now the goal is all students moving forward, regardless of where they are,” he said.


Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.