SBOE Discusses COVID-19 Impact on Student Enrollment, Assessment Plans
A discussion of critical K-12 issues took center stage at Thursday’s State Board of Education meeting and work session. State Superintendent of Education Dr. Eric Mackey updated board members about student enrollment, budgets, state assessments and the continuing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on schools.
To date, public school enrollment in the state has dropped by 5,000 students for the school year. Mackey said he cannot predict whether students now being homeschooled or enrolled in private school will re-enter public schools next fall. Kindergarten suffered the largest drop in enrollment, and because Alabama law does not require mandatory kindergarten, parents may choose to enroll their child in either kindergarten or first grade next year.
The numbers and unknowns are problematic because school funding is based on student enrollment or average daily membership (ADM). The number of students tallied in the first 20 school days following Labor Day determines funding amounts, including how many teacher units a school earns for each grade for the following school year. The potential inaccuracies and adverse consequences spurred the ALSDE to work on a formula to hold school systems harmless from enrollment losses this year. That formula would be proposed to the legislature which will begin building the FY22 budget in February.
Mackey said the Education Trust Fund (ETF) budget is projected to have three percent growth, enough to cover increases proposed in the SBOE’s budget request. Still, he warned board members that the legislature could opt to budget conservatively given current economic uncertainty.
Assessment, Accountability Concerns
The U.S. Department of Education has made clear it will not issue waivers for student assessments in 2021 as it did for 2020, but Mackey acknowledged an incoming Biden administration could issue revised rules. While the state report card covers Alabama’s compliance with the federal accountability requirement, state-level accountability laws are a different matter. The Alabama Accountability Act uses the state assessment to identify the bottom performing six percent of schools as “failing schools” and allows students attending those schools to apply for scholarships funded by tax credits. Another law identifies low-performing schools to receive state action for school improvement. Complicating matters this year is a delay in implementation of Alabama’s new statewide assessment, which was slated to be administered in 2020 but postponed to spring 2021 due to the health crisis.
School and state leaders are concerned about using the baseline data for state accountability purposes and question the assessment’s validity for several reasons:
- Educators expect student scores to drop due to the significant disruption of learning this year;
- Remote learners may not participate because the assessment must be taken in person at school;
- Some 13 systems are still remote-only; and
- Participation rates below 70 to 80 percent are not high enough to give validity to the results.
Board members urged the ALSDE to initiate discussion with legislators to waive accountability measures for the current school year.
As for school closures, Mackey said there is no plan for a statewide shutdown of schools from COVID-19 cases, explaining that infection rates differ across the state. He said he expects rolling school closures to continue on a case-by-case basis. The greatest factor forcing schools to close is lack of available substitute teachers. When educators must quarantine due to exposure or positive test results, schools simply may not have enough adults to open school. Alternatives are limited because of required social distancing. Mackey said with the holiday and winter season approaching, the situation likely will get worse before it gets better. He added that the ALSDE itself had a significant surge in employees testing positive, doubling in the last two weeks and requiring an entire section to quarantine.
Math Textbook Recommendations
SBOE members requested adoption of the mathematics textbook recommendations be removed from the November board agenda after concerns were raised at last month’s work session. Board members objected to approving textbooks rated “weak” and questioned the value of approving every textbook on the list after committee members invested significant time to review textbook alignment with state standards. Additionally, members questioned why the ratings and comments about textbooks are not provided to help local systems make their selections.
Jeff Newman (District 7) summarized board members’ unease, saying when he served as a local school superintendent, if the state provided a list of approved textbooks, he assumed those textbooks met standards. The news that some of the textbooks do not fully align to state standards triggered board members to say only strong materials should be approved, but math teachers and coaches who serve on the committee said there are wrinkles in that approach.
Committee members explained no single math textbook is perfectly aligned, and teachers must use supplementary materials. They urged that an approved textbook list be provided as soon as possible because local teachers must prepare for the new mathematics curriculum.
The lengthy discussion highlighted board members’ desire for the state to provide leadership so local educators can expect high-quality direction and materials for teaching and learning. Deputy State Superintendent Dr. Daniel Boyd presented a revised rubric by which the committee could rate textbooks. The original scoring rubric included alignment to the state’s math course of study and to NAEP standards as well as comments for specified books. The revised rubric adds comments for all books, supplemental information and scoring for rigor and usability of written material and coherence and usability of digital material.
In the revised timeline, the math textbook committee would reconvene in late November and finalize revised recommendations in December. The SBOE would adopt the proposal in January 2021, and materials would be disseminated to local school systems in February. Local systems then could complete their textbook adoption processes and purchase textbook materials in April.
ALSDE staff presented an AMSTI update that included guidelines, industry best practices, a plan for regional math coaches and an intentional focus on materials housed in warehouses for distribution. AMSTI recruited current teachers to serve as “Teachers in Residence” (TIR) and serve as math coaches at the school level. The TIRs are mentored by 26 regional AMSTI math specialists.
School Board Governance Improvement Act Compliance Report
Mackey informed the board that he will present the year-end report for the School Board Governance Improvement Act at the December board meeting. Six local board members have not completed the state-mandated training requirement for 2019-20, despite letters from the state superintendent and AASB efforts. Unless these individuals quickly comply, their names will be publicly reported as being in violation of the law.
Next State BOE Meeting
The next SBOE meeting is scheduled for Thursday, Dec. 10 at 10 a.m., with a work session to follow.
Director of Governmental Relations