We recently shared Fruithurst elementary principal Christy Hiett’s email to Rep. Terri Collins about the A-F school report card legislation that Collins sponsored in 2012.  Christy grew up in the little Cleburne County community of Fruithurst, went to school there and has been there  since she finished Auburn University.

One could easily say that she has the DNA of Fruithurst in her blood.  Which accounts for her passion about both the school and community.  So when her school received a C, she was not happy and wrote Collins to explain why the legislation makes no sense.

To her credit, Collins replied to principal Hiett.  Here is her response:

Dr. Hiett,

I appreciate you taking time to write to me.  I do hear your deep concern over the A-F Grading.  I first want to share that the reasons behind the legislation were certainly not to degrade, but to improve student success for Alabama.  The other states that have implemented the easy to understand grades have seen large gains in student success.  The state of Florida was ranked in the bottom 10% of the country for student success and in less than 10 years after they began the grading, they moved to the top 10% for student achievement.  That is my hope for our state. 

The grading was discussed with many educators.  I served on a Taskforce for 4 years and then another Taskforce for Accountability with the ESSA plan.  The indicators that the law used matched the new requirements from the Federal Government.

I’ve read articles from all over the state regarding the A-F and what pleases me most is that the maid discussion is not blame or negative, but positive, proud of growth and success and an intentional focus on the areas of need.  I truly believe this will be a positive step to moving our schools to better student achievement.

The Report Card will be used regardless of the testing.  I do know the State Board voted to stop using ACT Aspire with no other test ready and that most Superintendents asked them not to change.  Helping students be prepared for college and careers will always be important, no matter the test used to measure.

ESSA requires a “quality” indicator and the State Board decided to use Chronic Absenteeism.  I personally am a proponent of “engagement” and have seen data that shows even one extracurricular activity makes a big difference in achievement, graduation and even reduces suicide rate.  I believe the Department is considering using this indicator when it can be verified.

I do understand you don’t have any confidence in the Report Card.  I also congratulate you on the Blue Ribbon and Banner School accomplishments!  These show in your schools high achievement rate and that is very impressive.  I know this first graded card is a prototype and the department wants to continue to improve the accuracy and quality of the indicators.  I believe that as long as our state focuses on student success, we will continue to see gains and that is good news for our children.

Terri Collins

However, Collins failed to persuade Christy and she sent her another email.  Here is this response:

I appreciate your response to my concern about the A-F report cards.  However, your argument in favor of these grades is not compelling and leaves far more questions than it gave me answers.

I call your attention to the article linked below.  This is by Lindsay Wagner, a well-respected education writer in North Carolina.  It is an excellent review of the A-F situation.

http://www.ncpolicywatch.com/2015/02/04/do-a-f-school-grades-measure-progress-or-punish-the-poor/

Here are sections that I found especially interesting:

Virginia moved toward adopting the A-F grading scale for its schools back in 2013, but now, after a near two-year delay in implementing it, there’s a bipartisan push moving through that state’s legislature to repeal the grading scale entirely.

In the birthplace of the A-F school grading system–Florida– the accountability measure’s creator, Jeb Bush, tweaked his own grading formula early on to set the state’s schools on a course for receiving higher grades. In many cases, these school grades have raised concerns and questions about how effectively they improve public education, how fair it is to punish schools that serve disadvantaged communities, and the potential for politicians to game the system for their own benefit.

As you should know, the Republican controlled legislature in Virginia did indeed repeal their A-F legislation.

Bush has said the A-F grading system has spurred Florida’s low-performing schools to do better to help their students improve. But, says Matt DiCarlo, an education policy expert at the Albert Shanker Institute, those school improvements Bush points to have largely resulted from the fact that his changes to the metric during the early 2000s equated to gaming the system, producing artificially higher numbers of schools receiving As in the years after the first grades were released.

Since then, the Florida system of school grades has reportedly been plagued with problems resulting from many more tweaks to the measurement formula. According to The Washington Post, Florida’s school superintendents association recently called for the dissolution of the A-F grading scale.

“The school grading system has changed multiple times over the past few years, including 34 changes in 2011-2012 alone. The culmination of these changes have had a significant impact on Florida’s accountability system and today many Floridians lack confidence in the assessments and school grades as a precise measure of a school’s performance,” the superintendents’ association notes in a legislative briefing.

This info definitely shoots a huge hole in your contention about how A-F has helped Florida schools. I find it interesting that you failed to note that the school superintendent’s association in Florida is opposed to A-F.

The title of the article “Do A-F school grades measure progress or punish the poor?”  certainly hits home in Alabama.

Have you looked at the results of the new A-F report cards?  Have you taken the time to honestly study these?  I have and here’s what I found.  Id you would, here’s is what you will find.  There are 104 schools with an F.  They have three things in common.  1.  high poverty.  2.  predominately African-American students.  3. Forgotten.

Of the 104 schools, 70 have a poverty rate of 70% or more.  And 59 of the schools have a student body of 90% AA or more….another 30 are more than 70% AA.  These are alarming statistics that have not been considered…

(Truth is, we have long known that high poverty is typically a great indicator of poor performance, except in the case of my school, Fruithurst Elementary School.  We have always been high-poverty, yet high-performing, until this A-F Report Card came along..

But the most unconscionable aspect of this report card is that once we have identified F schools, we have nothing in the legislation to help them. Just grade them, degrade their existence, and let them be!

If the school nurse took the temperature of 200 of my students and found that 50 of them had a fever–but didn’t lift a finger to help them—that school nurse would more than likely lose his/her job immediately.  Can you imagine that school nurse not contacting the parents of the children that had a fever?  Me either…. Because that school nurse is held accountable to do her job.

Yet the bill you wrote in 2012 does ABSOLUTELY NOTHING for the children of Alabama.  The report card just tells schools they are terrible and then forgets them.  This is the same thing the Alabama Accountability Act (which you also support) does. Do you honestly think this is helpful to education in Alabama?  Frankly, I think this report card is one of the most morally corrupt things I have ever seen.

You speak of talking to educators.  But did you talk to any BEFORE you introduced this bill?  Where did you get the idea for this legislation?  I don’t think anyone in Alabama thought it was a good idea.  Finally, you said we are measuring chronic absenteeism at the direction of the state board of education.  I contacted two members of this board and both said your statement is incorrect. Imagine that!

Since the summer of 2016, I have been extensively involved in research in my community have a cancer cluster.  There were eight cases leukemia and lymphoma diagnosed within a very short period of time. The first four cases were young males. Last year we had a student that was home-bound because of his leukemia diagnosis and treatment.  Sadly, he passed away.

As you might expect, cancer treatment is very harsh and time-consuming.  Yet the new report card says my school is accountable because these kids are fighting for their lives. Chronic absenteeism isn’t always just because parents allow children to stay home.  Do you consider this fair and right?  I certainly don’t.. BUT the A-F report card only sees absenteeism as a black or white issue… never any gray.

You, and the other lawmakers who voted this A-F report card into existence totally missed the mark on what it takes to “improve student success for Alabama.”

I need some clarification on your following statement: “ESSA requires a ‘quality’ indicator and the State Board decided to use Chronic Absenteeism. I personally am a proponent of ‘engagement’ and have seen data that shows even one extracurricular activity makes a big difference in achievement, graduation and even reduces suicide rate. I believe the Department is considering using this indicator when it can be verified.”

  • Are you stating that elementary schools need extracurricular activities to improve chronic absenteeism? If so, I can provide data for you that shows that “extracurricular” activities do not work in a high-poverty elementary school. I have tried that parents can’t come to  school to pick children.  Therefore, this solution isn’t a valid solution with high-poverty schools… the ones that received the lowest marks on the report card.
  • Are you referring to only high schools for the extracurricular activities? If so, that solution doesn’t help me in elementary school.
  • You state “engagement” and “extracurricular” in the same sentence… those are two different items within a school setting. Are you referencing “engagement” in the classroom or are you using the two terms interchangeably and/or simultaneously?
  • Sadly, your solution of “engagement” and “extracurricular activity,” according to your statement in your email, “makes a big difference in achievement, graduation, and even reduces suicide rate,” but not chronic absenteeism, which is what your statement originally intended to support… I am confused by this statement from you.
  • Knowing that you “think” the “Department,” (I am assuming you are referencing the State Department of Education), will use the “engagement” and/or “extracurricular activity” as an indicator “when it can be verified,” leaves me with more questions than you have provided answers…. How will that work for an elementary school, especially the ones of poverty that don’t have the same options as low-poverty schools? I just can’t wrap my mind around this being used as an indicator for the report card.

You state that you do understand that I have no confidence in the state report card, but you offer no solutions to this ridiculous bill.  You also state, “I also congratulate you on the blue Ribbon and Banner School accomplishments! These show in your schools high achievement rate and that is very impressive.” BUT….. out of the other side of your mouth, you support the A-F Report card that says my school is AVERAGE!  I may not be the smartest person in the world, BUT YOU JUST CONTRADICTED YOURSELF!  And…. You just made a statement that proves the A-F Report Card is invalid, if you see my school as having “high achievement rate” and being “very impressive,” but yet you support a document that states the opposite!  Wow!

Yes, public schools in Alabama need all the help they can get, but certainly not from lawmakers who have no clue about education.   The A-F report card is definitely not the answer for Alabama.  Which is why at least three local school boards have passed a resolution of “no confidence” in this process.

Again, I appreciate your response to my first email.  I simply ask that in the future YOU consult with experienced Alabama educators before YOU introduce new education legislation.

Sincerely,

Dr. Christy Hiett

Principal, Fruithurst Elementary School

Cleburne Cancer Concerns Organizer