Friday, October 23, 2009

Gary Palmer: Personal attacks don’t change Alabama’s education facts

  On October 4, the Mobile Press-Register published an opinion article by Alabama State Superintendent of Education Dr. Joe Morton disparaging a column that I wrote concerning the academic outcomes for Alabama school children as reported by the Alabama State Department of Education.

  In August, I pointed out that there is a significant gap between what the Alabama State Department of Education reports for proficiency results for Alabama school children and what other national tests such as the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) report. That was not my first article on this topic. In November 2007, I wrote about a report entitled The Pangloss Index: How States Game the No Child Left Behind Act. According to that report, states were lowering standards to improve education results in order to comply with the No Child Left Behind law (NCLB.)

  The Pangloss Index highlighted that state boards of education were misrepresenting progress in their schools. According to the report, when the U.S. Department of Education left it up to the states to define their own standards for proficiency, many states lowered the bar to the point of grossly misrepresenting actual academic proficiency. The report placed Alabama among the worst offenders.

  According to the report, “While NCLB was designed to raise achievement standards every year until 2014, when 100 percent of students are required to be ‘proficient,’ the Alabama Department of Education has lowered standards annually, to the point where even abjectly failing districts like Birmingham make the grade.” (Emphasis in the report.)

  Another report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, entitled The Proficiency Illusion, evaluated the proficiency results in 26 states - Alabama was not included - and found that proficiency standards vary from state to state and from year to year to the degree that “…there is no common understanding of what ‘proficiency’ means.”

  As I wrote in August, this does not mean that the state is misrepresenting the scores from the tests; it means the state’s standard of proficiency in reading and math for eighth graders is significantly lower than the NAEP standard. As The Proficiency Illusion points out, lowering the standards is a national problem to the point that they concluded, “…that the goal of achieving ‘100 percent proficiency’ has no coherent meaning….” Consequently, Dr. Morton is targeting the wrong guy; I simply reported what highly reputable independent education research groups have reported.

  In regard to my reporting that Alabama’s dropout rate is much higher than the Department of Education reports, it should be noted that Dr. Morton did not dispute that the reported dropout rate is less than the actual dropout rate. He simply defends the inflated graduation rate by asserting that their method of reporting dropouts has been approved by the U.S. Department of Education. But getting the federal government’s approval to report a dropout rate of only 15 percent does not change the fact that over 40 percent of Alabama’s school children are dropping out of school.

  Perhaps Dr. Morton missed the other articles reporting the higher dropout rate which have appeared in Alabama newspapers including a Mobile Press-Register article posted by Rena Havner Philips. Regarding the state reporting a graduation rate of 85 percent, Philips wrote, “Even state officials know that number is inflated.” The state reported a dropout rate of only 12 percent (88 percent graduation rate) for Mobile County students even though, as Philips reported, a recent study in Mobile County showed the graduation rate is only about 60 percent which translates to a dropout rate of 40 percent.

  Considering that so many highly credible organizations report Alabama’s dropout rate ranges from 35 to over 40 percent, it is astonishing that the Department of Education reported a statewide graduation rate of 85 percent.

  For instance, for the school year ending 2007, The Southern Education Foundation reported a dropout rate of 41.4 percent for Alabama high school students. According to their report, 32 of Alabama’s 67 counties had dropout rates of 40 percent or more and another 17 counties had dropout rates of over 35 percent. The highest dropout rate was 60.4 percent for Russell County and the lowest was 24.4 percent for Lamar County according to their report. Their report also showed the dropout rate in Mobile County was 50 percent.

  While others have been accurately reporting it for several years, it is encouraging to know that the Alabama State Department of Education will be more accurately reporting the state’s graduation rate in 2010. Given that even Dr. Morton admits the graduation rate is debatable, it raises some question about why they have continued to publish graduation rate data that they know does not accurately reflect outcomes in Alabama’s high schools.

  On a personal note, Dr. Morton implied that I hope Alabama schools fail. This couldn’t be further from the truth. If Alabama schools fail, our state fails and it hurts us all. I count myself among the many who are committed to improving education in Alabama and who believe the first step toward making improvements is to properly define problems and obstacles.

  Most importantly, we must be honest about where we really are. Resorting to personal attacks against those who disagree or who honestly expose the issues is not part of the solution.

  About the author: Gary Palmer is president of the Alabama Policy Institute, a non-partisan, non-profit research and education organization dedicated to the preservation of free markets, limited government and strong families, which are indispensable to a prosperous society.

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