TALLADEGA -- The Alabama Department of Education has issued its first letter grades for each of the state’s school systems.

The city systems in Sylacauga and Pell City and the county systems in Talladega and St. Clair all earned B’s, coming out ahead of the state average, which was a C. Talladega City Schools was also graded at C overall, although both city school board Chairman Jake Montgomery and Superintendent Terry Roller took exception to their overall grade.

The grades are based scores in five categories: academic achievement (20 percent), academic growth (30 percent), graduation rate (30 percent), college and career readiness (10 percent) and chronic absenteeism (10 percent).

In elementary level schools, where graduation and college/career readiness are not factors, academic achievement represents 40 percent of the grade, and academic growth is 50 percent.

Overall, the state scored 60.27 in academic achievement, 87.86 in academic growth, 87 in graduation rate, 66 in college and career readiness and 17.86 in chronic absenteeism.

Talladega City Schools

The city system’s grade, 73, is based on the average score of the four elementary schools, junior high school and high school within the system.

R.L. Young Elementary was rated highest in the system at 80, which is a B.

All of the other schools in the system earned D’s: Graham Elementary and Houston Elementary were tied at 69, Talladega High got a 68, C.L. Salter Elementary got a 67 and Zora Ellis Junior High got a 63.

System-wide, academic achievement was scored 44.79, academic growth 80.88, graduation rate 89.6 (slightly higher than the state average), college and career readiness 53 and chronic absenteeism 19.68.

At Talladega High, academic achievement was graded 25.22, growth was 77.36, college/career readiness 54 and absenteeism 24.39. At Young, the highest-rated school in the system, academic achievement was 70.34, growth was 88.72 and absenteeism was 22.18.

At Zora Ellis Junior High, which was rated lowest, academic achievement was 34.33, growth was 80.92 and absenteeism was 16.19 percent.

The Talladega City system was ranked 27th out of 137 systems based on total per pupil expenditures. Every school in the system shows a 100 percent student engagement score at the elementary, middle and high school level. According to the report, this score is based on the percentage of students who are engaged in some sort of extracurricular activity, including sports, clubs, volunteer work, arts, student government and other non-classroom activity.

City school board Chairman Jake Montgomery said Thursday, “I have had several conversations with the superintendent and with the staff, and frankly, I don’t give these results much credibility. The state school board has been in turmoil for the last two years, and I think that is reflected in the way these grades were assessed. Some of the data used is flawed, and the system was not allowed to correct some errors that we discovered.

“The state department has said that this is only a first draft, and it has not been approved by the U.S. Department of Education. That said, the report does have some correct and true information in it. There are areas where we have progressed and areas where we need work, and we will address those items that we give any credence to.

“But I think most of the report is not fair to our teachers or our students and doesn’t reflect the hard work they have done in the past year. The state refused to let the system make corrections when we discovered errors, and that is reflected in our results. I don’t know why they would publish this when they know the data is inherently flawed. It has no credibility. You can look the underlying test results and the progress the kids are making, and you can see that.”

Superintendent Terry Roller gave a video statement on social media that was largely written by his staff: “Although we value this data, this grade does not define us. As confirmed by our recent AdvancedEd accreditation visit, our school system demonstrates an abundance of positive engagement and extracurricular activities that occur daily. We are doing a remarkable job of producing students who are college and career ready and are ready to enter today's competitive job market. We will continue our improvement journey through student engagement, focused instruction and your support.”

Sylacauga City Schools

Sylacauga City Schools received an overall B with a total score of 82 out of a possible 100 points.

“The mission of Sylacauga City Schools is to prepare our students for college, career and community success,” Superintendent Dr. Todd Freeman said. “Our strategic plan goals are prioritized based on providing the best learning experiences we can for every student who attends our schools.”

The system’s achievement and growth in reading and math, graduation rate, college and career readiness score, and attendance are all above state averages. “Academic growth was a strength throughout the system, which is an impressive example of the improvements being made by students,” a press release reads.

Sylacauga High also received a B and a score of 82.

“The graduation rate of 92 percent is the highest since the formula for this rate has been used. Academic achievement, also referred to as proficiency, has increased 10 percent in math over the past two years,” the release says. “The SHS college and career readiness rate is 75 percent, also the highest since this measure has been used. The state average for college and career readiness is 66 percent.”

Nichols-Lawson Middle earned a letter grade of C with a total score of 78. “Academic growth is a strong indication of improvement students made throughout the year. Academic achievement in math at Nichols-Lawson has increased 9 percent over the past three years,” the release says.

Pinecrest Elementary earned a letter grade of C with a total score of 75. “Academic achievement in math is 53 percent, our highest mark in the system,” according to the release.

“The Sylacauga City Schools report card, along with many other measures not reported, provides useful information for us as we continue to improve,” Freeman said. “Sylacauga City Schools has great teachers who are working diligently to provide our students with excellent learning opportunities. We have tremendous support from parents and our community to make our schools the very best. Our focus on academic achievement and commitment to accomplishing our mission are as strong as ever.”

The Sylacauga system released a video Wednesday with background information on how the school report cards work, then released another video Thursday that discussed the results of the system’s report card. The system will release a third video on the subject on its Facebook page today.

Talladega County Schools

The Talladega County school system also received an overall grade of B, with a score of 81.

“Talladega County Schools’ system grade of a B reflects positive outcomes for all 17 schools,” Superintendent Dr. Suzanne Lacey wrote in a statement. “The district continues to concentrate on innovative instruction in all content areas that has resulted in significant gains.

“The integration of technology to support student learning continues to provide a rich learning environment, plus the focus on STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics) provides Talladega County Schools’ students with a well rounded preparation.”

The system scored a 91.42 on academic growth, 3½ points above the state average. Talladega County also scored above the state average in regards to graduation rate, with scores of 92 and 87, respectively.

“The graduation rate of 92 percent demonstrates a high level of confidence in establishing college and career readiness for students,” Lacey said.

The system scored slightly lower in the academic achievement and college and career readiness.

“While the ACT Aspire determined the growth and achievement levels of students in grades 3-8 and 10, it is important to note that in recent months, the Alabama State Department of Education eliminated the use of this assessment because there was a lack of evidence to support alignment with Alabama standards,” Lacey said. “That factor alone is critical in determining the reliability of any accountability measure.”

Talladega County also had a “chronic absenteeism” score of 20.63, compared to the state average of 17.68.

Lacey noted another factor that “significantly impacted the overall performance of each school in Talladega County was the definition that was established late in the process to measure attendance. Chronic absenteeism, defined as any student missing school for 15 days (excused, unexcused, or a combination of both) negatively impacted each school’s ability to earn the maximum number of percentage points in this category.

“Interestingly, the overall attendance rate for Talladega County Schools is over 94 percent, which I consider impressive. Talladega County Schools has earned a stellar reputation for academic excellence through innovative practice, leadership and technology.”

The 17 individual school scores were as follows:

A.H. Watwood Elementary, 81, B; B.B. Comer Elementary, 79, C; B.B Comer High, 75, C; Drew Middle, 88, B; Childersburg Elementary; 76, C; Childersburg High; 74, C; Childersburg Middle, 86, B; Fayetteville High, 84, B; Lincoln Elementary, 82, B; Lincoln High, 75, C; Munford Elementary, 78, C; Munford High, 75, C; Munford Middle, 77, C; Stemley Road Elementary, 58, F; Sycamore Elementary, 81, B; Talladega County Central High, 77, C; and Winterboro High, 77, C.

“Schools are recognized both statewide and nationally for transforming schools into 21st century models of learning,” Lacey said. “The entire Talladega County team, including administrators, teachers and support staff, work tirelessly to ensure student success. The current report card is marked ‘prototype.’ My hope for the future is that additional measures will be included that would more accurately report the many factors and complexities that define both schools and their communities.”

Pell City Schools

Pell City Schools Superintendent Dr. Michael Barber said he was pleased the system’s overall score on the report card was above the state average.

“I will say that I am pleased but not content,” Barber said. “We want to continue to get better by the day.”

According to the report, the Pell City school system scored above the state average in the five academic categories. The system received a 63.56 percent in academic achievement, 91.59 percent for academic growth, 87.80 percent for its graduation rate, 73 percent for college and career readiness, and 25.02 percent for chronic absenteeism.

According to the report released Wednesday, Pell City ranked 118 out of 137 school systems in funding. The Pell City system spends about $9,213 per student. The school system is ranked 81 out of 137 school systems in local funding.  

The report also indicated that only 5 percent of the students are engaged in extra and co-curricular activities.

Barber said he is not sure if the student engagement percentage reflects a true picture because it includes the entire student body, and elementary students do not generally participate in extracurricular school activities.

He added the 2016-17 report card was based on the ACT Aspire test, which is no longer used. The test measures students’ readiness for college.

Next year, the methodology for students evaluations will change, Barber said.

“It (the report card) is still developing at the state level,” he said. “The test (ACT Aspire) doesn’t necessary line up with our curriculum.”

He said it is unknown how school systems and students will be measured next year.

“I don’t know what the score will be next year,” Barber said. “I do know in Pell City, we have wonderful teachers who are above average, and so are our students.”

St. Clair County Schools

The St. Clair County school system received an overall grade of 84, which is a B.

Also, the report showed that 11 percent of St. Clair County students were engaged in extracurricular activities.

The amount of federal, state and local dollars spent by the school system for the education of each student per year is $8,094, which is 130th out of 137 school systems statewide. The state average is $9,213, while Mountain Brook is ranked No. 1 in the state at $12,811.

St. Clair Schools Superintendent Jenny Seals said she was proud of the system for receiving a B.

“The state, as a whole, received a C,” Seals said. “I would like to commend our principals, coordinators, faculties and students for their diligence in making this schools system successful.”

Staff writers David Atchison, Laci Braswell and Gary Hanner contributed to this story.