Unfair testing skews failing schools label

Published 6:04 pm Saturday, January 28, 2017

By Craig Ford
Ford is a Democrat from Gadsden and the Minority Leader in the Alabama House of Representatives.

A lot has been said about the state of Alabama’s public school system. And for the last six years, state leaders have been obsessed with defining public schools as failing, even going so far as to require by law that at least 6 percent of all schools must be labeled as failing.

Making the situation worse is that students and schools have seemingly been set up to fail.

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To decide which schools are failing, the state requires every student to take the ACT Aspire test. But the ACT Aspire test is not designed to test accountability or academic progress, and no other state in the entire country uses the ACT Aspire like Alabama does.

Furthermore, the ACT Aspire is a newly created test and there is no way to measure its validity.

Other states only use the ACT Aspire to determine which students are qualified for Advanced Placement courses, and to help prepare students who are getting ready to take the actual ACT for college admission. It is not a test that can tell us if students are meeting the standards for their grade level or if they have improved from where they were the year before.

What the ACT Aspire test does not do is measure whether a child is meeting the standards set for their grade level. In fact, the ACT Aspire tests students on subjects they haven’t even been taught yet. It also tests students at advanced reading comprehension levels.

For example, students in the third grade are being tested at a 7th and 8th grade reading comprehension level, children in middle school are being tested at the 9th and 10th grade reading comprehension level, and tenth graders are being tested at a college freshmen reading comprehension level.

Tenth graders are also being tested on subjects like trigonometry, even though most students don’t take that level math until their junior or senior years in high school.

How can students succeed on a test when they don’t understand the questions and haven’t been taught the subjects?

The state also doesn’t provide any study materials to teachers or students to explain how the tests questions will be designed or to otherwise help students and teachers prepare for the exams.

The test is also flawed because it has no impact on students’ grades or whether they will graduate, so many students don’t take it seriously or put forth the effort needed to be successful on the test.

But the worst part of all is that the state requires every public school student, including special needs students and those with learning disabilities, to take the ACT Aspire test.

Why would the state create such a system? Why would we give students a test they have no motivation to succeed on, and tests them on subjects they haven’t been taught and at a reading level that is years ahead of where they are supposed to be?

All this system does is set students and schools up to fail so that state leaders can use poor test scores to push their school choice agenda. It does nothing to help struggling schools or prepare students for college, and even less to prepare students for life in the workforce after high school.

I’m certainly not saying that we don’t have failing schools or that we don’t need to make changes in our education system. But instead of reaching conclusions based on honest results, our state leaders are manipulating results to reach the conclusions they want.

A better solution would be to drop the ACT Aspire as a test of accountability and instead use a system similar to the one used in Georgia.

Beginning in the 9th grade in the Georgia school system, students are given comprehensive exams at the end of each year on core subjects they are required to pass in order to graduate, including algebra and geometry, American history and government, biology and life sciences, and literature. These tests count as 20 percent of a student’s grade, so the student is motivated to do well but a lower performance won’t necessarily keep them from graduating.

Testing this way allows students to be tested on their actual grade level, and the subjects are fresher in the student’s minds.

The ACT Aspire test can still be used for Advanced Placement classes and to help those who want to go to college.

Are our schools really failing? The only way to know is to create a fair test, and to let our agenda be driven by the results rather than using manipulated results to push an agenda.