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New test shows deeper academic lapse for Alabama kids

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MONTGOMERY —  More than half of Alabama's eighth-graders are underperforming in reading and math, according to the results of the state's new test of core academic skills.

Forty-eight percent of eighth-graders scored as "ready" or "exceeding" in reading skills on the ACT Aspire, a series of statewide tests introduced in the last school year. In math, only 29 percent of eighth-graders were "ready" or "exceeding."

State schools superintendent Tommy Bice, who unveiled the numbers at a Montgomery work session of the state school board Thursday, said the results may look like a setback, but are in fact a clear picture of problems that were unseen under No Child Left Behind.

“This is truly a new baseline,” Bice said. “It's not something you can compare to our old assessment. This is not something you can take in any way other than saying, ‘This is where we are.’”

Last year, the school board asked for and got a waiver to opt out of No Child Left Behind, the Bush-era federal law that required states to test all students and hold schools accountable for bringing every one of them up to grade level by 2014.

Passed with bipartisan support more than a decade ago, NCLB later became unloved on both sides of the political aisle, partly because of complaints that there was too much focus on testing. Alabama in 2013 sought a waiver to stop using its NCLB-era Alabama Reading and Math Test, and replace it with a series of tests designed by ACT, the creators of Alabama's most-used college entrance exam.

Administered for the first time this year, the test measures students' progress toward the skills they need to do well on the ACT. The state also now provides students with a chance to take the ACT itself for free, expanding access to low-income kids who might otherwise have opted out.

First-year test results indicate many of those students have a long way to go before they take that entrance exam. Fifty-two percent of third-graders scored "ready" or "exceeding" in math last year, indicating they were on track academically. Higher grades scored progressively worse, with seven out of 10 eighth-graders scoring "close" or "in need of support," the state's two lowest ratings.

Reading results were more grim in the lower grades, with only 35 percent of third-graders scoring "ready" or "exceeding" in reading.

Bice said the results were significant, but not entirely a surprise. In 2013, Alabama ranked among the lowest states on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, one of the few tests that measures students nationwide. The NAEP results showed Alabama's students doing far worse than they appeared to be on the ARMT, Alabama's No Child Left Behind test.

"When the basketball goal is only five feet high, we can dunk it all day long," said school board member Mary Scott Hunter.

That wasn't the first indication the state's old testing system wasn't working, Bice said. More than 90 percent of students who took the state's old graduation exam passed it, Bice said, but one-third of Alabama students ended up needing remediation in college.

“It was always taken as a failure of our school system,” Bice said. “In fact, it was a failure of the alignment of our expectations.”

Bice said the questions on the new test —  and the instruction that leads up to them —  are much more geared toward critical thinking than the questions on the state's older tests. He gave the example of a teacher who asks students to state the square root of nine, and then follow up with an explanation of why three is the square root of nine.

Board member Stephanie Bell said she was concerned that the new approach may distract students from learning the fundamentals. She said that on a recent tour of a prison, she'd talked to the teachers of a prison masonry course about inmates who want to learn a job skill but lack basic knowledge.

"They have this great opportunity to learn a skill," she said of the inmates. "But they didn't have the basic math it requires."

Under the Alabama Accountability Act, a school choice bill passed in 2013, schools have to identify the state's lowest-performing schools, where students' families will be eligible for a tax credit they can spend on private schools. Bice said school administrators promised educators that the first-year testing results wouldn't be used for anything but assessment, though he said that when more years of data are in, that data could be used to comply with the act.

Bice said that the test was a "reset" that gave the state an honest look at students' academic performance.

"We set the bar too low for too long," he said.

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