Birmingham City Schools

Making the Grade? How Birmingham City Schools Are Doing Depends on Which Measure You Choose.

The graduating seniors from Ramsay High School listen to the salutatory address during the commencement ceremony at the Bill Harris Arena at Fair Park on Thursday, May 23, 2019. (Source: Julianna Hunter)


As 2020 rolls in, BirminghamWatch looks back at its biggest stories of 2019 (See story links at the bottom of the page)

Multiple choice:

  1. The Birmingham City Schools system has a high number of failing schools as determined by the Alabama Accountability Act.
  2. The Birmingham City Schools system is below average, based on a “D” grade on the Alabama Education Report Card for the 2016-2017 school year.
  3. The Birmingham City Schools system is doing better, on the upswing.
  4. All of the above.

If you chose “4” you may understand how complex it can be to determine the exact state of the city’s school system. Competing, or at least different, kinds of assessments lead to different conclusions about the system responsible for educating about 25,000 students.

Take, for example, the Failing Schools list, an artifact of the Alabama Accountability Act.

Of the 46 Birmingham city schools, 20 are on the Failing Schools List, which is compiled each year under the Alabama Accountability Act. The AAA requires that the bottom 6% of schools in the state, based on standardized test scores, be on the Failing Schools list.

But the list of five BCS schools that score “F” on the Alabama State Department of Education’s annual report card is not identical to the list of BCS schools on the Accountability Act’s failing list. Three of the five schools with an “F” on the Education Report Card are on the failing schools list too. But two of the five “F” scores belong to schools not on the Accountability Act’s failing schools list.

On the state report card, where the schools across the state as a whole score a “C,” Birmingham scores a “D.”

What the state grades mean

Still, the BCS numbers, particularly on the Education Report Card, gave cause to celebrate in Birmingham, where, under Superintendent Dr. Lisa Herring, the school system has been charting a path toward improvement. In fact, the BCS literally threw a party after the Education Report Card came out. The BCS website trumpets the achievement under the headline “BCS Celebrates Significant Progress on ALSDE’S A-F Report Cards”:

Students, parents, teachers, and school and district leaders celebrated the hard work and dedication that resulted in Birmingham City Schools (BCS) making significant progress as noted in the A-F Report Cards recently released by the Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE). BCS hosted a Celebration of Progress at Oxmoor Valley on Monday, Jan. 7, 2019, to recognize the district’s achievements… . With a conviction to improve as a district, BCS advanced 17 of 22 schools forward from grades of F to scores of D or higher with three of those 17 schools leaping to earn a grade of C.

Birmingham saw gains that were worth celebrating, said School Board President Cheri Gardner. “I think the Birmingham City Schools (system) is improving under the leadership of Dr. (Lisa) Herring. There’s a lot of work yet to be done but we’ve made substantial improvement,” Gardner said.

“I see improvement in our children’s test scores, and all of our schools or the majority of our schools have improved based on the number of points. In the past I think we have had, I think, about 22 schools on the failing list and now we’re down to about five.”

Gardner said that the ALSDE report card is “a more accurate assessment of our school system … over the Alabama Accountability Act” failing schools list.

An Explanation – the Difference in Assessments

Some may wonder how the two state assessments, the Failing Schools list and the State Report Card, differ and why their results may not seem to indicate exactly the same outcome or prompt the same reaction.

“The two are not connected in that they don’t measure the same things, they don’t identify the same schools all the time and there are very different criteria used for each one,” said Michael Sibley, the director of communications for the Alabama State Department of Education.

The terminology used to describe the assessments creates confusion, Sibley said, even though the two tests don’t actually consider any of the same elements of a school’s performance.

Start with the Failing Schools list. “That looks at one criteria, and that is how students performed on the state assessment,” Sibley said. The state once used the standardized ACT Aspire but now uses the Scantron standardized test – while trying to develop a better one, he said.  “So right now, we’re using Scantron as a stopgap measure until we completely finish the state assessment that’s underway.

The Alabama Accountability Act mandates the Failing Schools List.

“That test, that law, was created by the legislature and it mandates that the state department of education look at the results of that test and make a list of the bottom 6% of schools in terms of how they performed on that test. All they look at for that is the test, literally,” Sibley said.

On the other hand, the state school board report card assessment (ERC) covers a more detailed look at a school system’s performance, Sibley noted.

“The Alabama State Report Card takes numerous criteria into consideration when it comes up with a grade. Our Alabama state report card, which is still a letter grade, it looks at academic achievement, it looks at academic growth, it looks at graduation rate, college and career readiness in high schools, it looks at absenteeism – numerous other criteria that are not on the AAA list. So, it’s graded differently for that purpose,” he said.

The report card, with all the factors it considers, is a better “snapshot of how a school, a school system and the state as a whole are doing educationally,” Sibley said.

“I think by leaps and bounds the Alabama state report card gives a broader and more holistic look at what’s happening inside of schools. They receive a letter grade like on a report card but unlike the Triple A, which looks at one score on one test, the Alabama State report card has various indicators that come up with a more holistic view of how that school is performing, but even the state report card itself is not the be-all, end all.

“We hope that people use the report card as a tool to spark conversation about what can be done to improve schools. How can people do things, be it at home or at school or in the community – how can people come together to create a better educational environment for our kids? The Alabama State Report Card looks at stuff like the English proficiency rate of students who come here and don’t speak English. That’s a big deal because there’s a significant influx of those kinds of students. It looks at absenteeism and lets you know how bad of a problem the school is having with chronic absenteeism,” Sibley said. “You can’t learn if you’re not in school.”

From Sibley’s standpoint, it’s not hard to understand why the Birmingham City Schools celebrated the results of the education report card this year. “I believe Birmingham is one of those school systems that did better this year, significantly better than the year before on their state report card but had more failing schools once the failing schools list came out,” Sibley said.

Birmingham city schools Superintendent Lisa Herring looks on as Ramsay High School Principal Cassandra Fells and speaks during the graduation. (Source: Julianna Hunter)

For that reason, BCS officials prefer the findings of the state report card over the failing schools list, Gardner said. “We don’t believe that it (the failing schools list) measures or is an accurate reflection of what has actually happened in the school system,” she said, adding that the Accountability Act assessment doesn’t take into account the “growth that those schools may have achieved over the prior year.”

“Quite frankly, I don’t even like the term ‘Failing List’,” Gardner said. “I look at those schools as schools of opportunity.”

Gardner acknowledged that the BCS needs improvement, but said she was confident the schools would continue getting better under Herring. She’s already seen some benefits to Herring’s leadership, she said.

One area of targeted improvement connects to what Sibley said about chronic absenteeism – which has been a problem in Birmingham, Gardner said. It’s had an impact, she said.

Absenteeism “Hurts Tremendously”

“It’s very important for people to understand that in addition to the reading and math scores that are taken into consideration, that attendance is also one of those factors. And what has hurt us in the past is that we had a problem with children actually getting to school,” Gardner said. Students with more than 15 absences, excused or unexcused – “that hurts tremendously,” she said.

But this year, attendance has improved, she said. “Dr. Herring has taken some bold initiatives regarding getting children to school … . Prior to school opening this year, we actually went out into the neighborhoods, knocking on doors to get people to realize the importance of having their children at school every day.”

Birmingham’s school superintendent and board of education seem to be on the same page regarding the direction public education needs to take in the city, Gardner said. That’s a big change from the past, where, before Herring arrived, the schools had seen a succession of leaders come and go – eight superintendents in 20 years, ending with Dr. Kelley Castlin-Gacutan being fired in 2016 after 16 months on the job.

Gardner, one of the school board members voting to fire the previous superintendent, has nothing but praise for the current occupant of that post. “Dr. Herring is a visionary. We are very confident in her ability to lead Birmingham towards greatness and I think she is just what we needed for a long time,” Gardner said.

“The key to Dr. Herring’s success has been the staff that she has been able to put together and also staff buy-in is extremely important when you’re looking to move in a particular direction. And she has the confidence of Birmingham City Schools employees and that makes a tremendous difference…

“All of our employees – teachers, administrators, executive staff – she’s a leader that they believe in,” Gardner said.

The school board itself has also changed personnel. When Castlin-Gacutan was fired, the board was split 6-3 on the decision to terminate her. Today, they’re united behind Herring, who has outlined a multi-faceted strategic plan designed to improve the school system, Gardner said.

“We have a great team of board members,” she said. “We have the same vision, and the vision is one: and that is to make Birmingham City Schools a destination, to make our school system a place where we can be proud of and people are anxious to send their children.”

Cheryl Slocum contributed to this story.

Read the rest of BirminghamWatch’s special report on Birmingham schools:

Many Questions About Birmingham City Schools Remain After Three Months of Trying to Understand the State of Education

The History of the Birmingham City Schools

Shooting for the A — Birmingham Schools principal succeeded at one school. Now he’s aiming to redirect another that is facing significant challenges.

An Introduction to Birmingham Schools, From A to F

A Conversation With the Superintendent: Birmingham Schools’ Herring Talks About Facing Competition for Students, Being Accountable and Building Relationships