How Do States Choose State Boards of Education and State Superintendents?

The Alabama Legislature is currently considering a bill that would potentially overhaul state education governance and policymaking as it relates to K—12 public schools in the state. The bill, which has already passed the Senate, would abolish the elected State Board of Education and the Board-appointed position of State Superintendent of Education. The bill would create a Governor-appointed Commission, the Alabama Commission on Elementary and Secondary Education. The Commission would appoint a Secretary of Elementary and Secondary Education to be approved by the Senate. If approved by the Legislature, the proposal will be placed on the statewide ballot as an amendment to the Alabama Constitution.  

State commissions or boards of education and chief executive officers, whether they be superintendents or secretaries are central to state education governance. The process used for their selection has implications for accountability, decision-making, and setting priorities for a state’s K—12 education system.

All but two states (Minnesota and Missouri) have a school board or commission. Eleven states have elected school boards (12 if including the district of Columbia). The rest have appointed boards, most of which are appointed by the governor. States with elected school boards or commissions are listed below.

States with Elected Boards

  • Alabama
  • Colorado
  • Kansas
  • Louisiana
  • Michigan
  • Nebraska
  • New Mexico – only an advisory group
  • Nevada – Mixture of elected and appointed members
  • Ohio
  • Texas
  • Utah

The proposal before the Legislature resembles the governance structure currently in place in 12 states in which the governor appoints the school board and the board appoints the superintendent.

Education Governance

Why does this matter? States have the responsibility for implementing federal education law and developing, implementing, and managing state-level policies. For this to work well, several institutions must work well together.   

State legislatures must pass effective legislation.

Governors can propose education legislation and have the statutory authority to approve or veto legislation. As the state’s chief executive, the governor carries out the laws passed by the legislature. They can also play an important role in shaping the priorities of a state board when they have the power to appoint. In some states, as in Alabama, the governor serves as president of the school board.

State boards of education are responsible for statewide curriculum standards; high school graduation requirements; qualifications for professional education personnel; state accountability and assessment programs; standards for accreditation of local school districts; preparation programs for teachers and administrators; administration of federal assistance programs; and the development of rules and regulations for the administration of state programs. State boards are often seen as the lay representative of the state’s population and as the liaison between professional educators and policymakers. Boards should play a role as advocates for education and, in some states, have been influential in building consensus on state education policy.[1]  

Finally, state superintendents are responsible for administrative oversight of state education agencies and implementation of state law and board policies. Policy making can occur as superintendents interpret laws and policies they are responsible for implementing.

A report issued by the Education Commission of the States (ECS) outlines how state boards and state superintendents are chosen in varying states, and how the majority of states fall into one of four models. These models, described below, have implications for how state leaders work together in setting priorities and implementing policies.[2]

Model 1: Governor Appoints Board and Superintendent

In 10 states (Delaware, Iowa, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Vermont, and Virginia), the governor has the most power in setting priorities and ensuring they are implemented.

Consequently, the superintendent and board should both be aligned with the governor, though the superintendent may feel more independent of the board than in other models where the board appoints them. The governor is accountable to the voters and can be held more directly accountable for the status and effectiveness of education in the state

Model 2: Governor Appoints Board and Board Appoints Superintendent

In 12 states (Alaska, Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, Rhode Island, and West Virginia), the governor still has power in shaping the education agenda but has less direct control over the implementation of policies through the superintendent’s office, as compared to Model 1. The Board and Superintendent would potentially have a closer relationship than found in Model 1. The proposed Commission in Alabama fits this model.

Model 3:  Governor Appoints Board while Superintendent is Elected

In 10 states (Arizona, California, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Montana, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Wyoming), voters may see different platforms for education supported by the governor and the superintendent. The governor appoints the board, and this becomes a channel through which policy is formed. The superintendent may exercise more autonomy in interpreting those policies and how they will be implemented in the state.

Model 4:  Board is Elected and Appoints the Superintendent

In Alabama and five other states (Colorado, Kansas, Michigan, Nebraska, and Utah), the governor and the board are both directly accountable to voters. Since the board appoints the superintendent, this increases their power. In this model, the governor is likely in the weakest position to craft or control the education agenda, compared to the other models. According to ECS, states using this model potentially face stronger challenges aligning and collaborating across state leadership, unless the voting public is clear in its desires. When alignment is not present, states will likely face limitations in pushing for ambitious policy changes. At the same time, an elected board will be highly responsive to voters and will seek out their opinion, preferences, and needs.

According to ECS, twelve additional states (Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Mexico, New York, Nevada, Ohio, Oregon, South Carolina, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin function under modified versions of the above models. Five of these elect their board, though New Mexico’s is only an advisory commission. Two of these states elect their state superintendent. No state elects both their state board and superintendent.

Elected and Appointed State Boards: Strengths and Weakness

The process for selecting the board and superintendent can influence the goals for these officials. Some groups, including the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE), emphasize the role of state boards in representing the interests of the lay public in accordance with democratic principles. Whether elected or not, NASBE contends that:

“State boards of education are integral to the governance of public education in the United States. State Boards, operating as a lay body over state education, are intended to serve as an unbiased broker for education decision-making, focusing on the big picture, articulating the long-term vision and needs of public education, and making policy based on the best interests of the public and the young people of America.”

Elected board members are charged with asking important and challenging questions that lead to good policy. The question is whether boards effectively play this role.

Proponents say elected boards are more responsive to the public will. As elected officials, board members have their rightful place and, ideally, are only responsible to the people who elected them. They should be more empowered to oppose what they believe is not in the interests of the state’s schools and children.

At the same time, as elected officials, re-election is an important goal, if not the central goal. Thus elected board members may find themselves where the interests and desires of voters conflict with policies, programs, and practices that best serve children.

Conversely, proponents of appointed boards cite the strength of the vetting process in creating boards with knowledgeable, skilled, effective board members. An appointment process allows the governor to consider the needs of the board and the qualities different candidates would bring. Others cite that governor-appointed boards and appointed superintendents create a more efficient, aligned, and harmonious system for setting and implementing education priorities. Ambitious and substantive changes to a state’s school system are more feasible in a more efficient system that encourages collaboration and strengthens the governor’s capacity to effect change. However, while somewhat insulated, appointed boards are not immune from political pressure. 

Conclusion

The selection process for state school boards and state superintendents is important, and there are reasonable arguments for both elections and appointments. Regardless, the selection process will not remove politics. The nature of the task — setting and implementing the state’s K—12 education policy — means state school boards will likely always be politicized to some degree.

Thus, it is essential to establish both an effective governing structure and qualified leaders committed to strengthening teaching and learning in Alabama.

A quality education is how dreams are realized and the people’s voice is strengthened.


References

[1] National Association of State Boards of Education (2019). “State Board of Education Responsibilities”

[2] Education Commission of the States (2017). 50-State Comparison: K-12 Governance Structures.”


How Are Alabama Students Performing? 2018 Scantron Results

Less than half of Alabama public school students in grades 3-8 scored proficient on grade level tests of reading and math in 2018, according to the test data released early this year by the Alabama State Department of Education.

Considering all results across the grades, 48 percent of students were proficient in math and 46 percent were proficient in reading. Only in 3rd-grade math did a majority of students, 57.6 percent, test above the benchmark for proficiency.

The overall proficiency rate for science, which is tested in the fifth and seventh grade, was much lower, at 38 percent. While selected local systems exceed expectations in science, the lower statewide average is a concern given science’s role in developing the future workforce.

New State Assessments

2018 was an important transition year from ACT Aspire, which has been the primary tool for measuring academic progress in Alabama public schools since the 2013-2014 school year. Back in 2014 ACT Aspire replaced the Alabama Reading and Math Test (ARMT) to provide a better measure of students’ grade-level proficiency on a path to college readiness. While Aspire was applauded for being a more “honest” assessment of student performance and for its functional tie to the commonly used ACT college readiness test, Aspire also generated criticism for technical difficulties in test administration and results that were not consistently delivered in a timely manner.

In June 2017, the State Board of Education voted to cancel Alabama’s contract with ACT and move toward developing another set of tests, scheduled to be launched in the 2019-20 school year. In the meantime, the state has continued to assess performance in grades 3-8 using tests provided by a testing company named Scantron, which has experience working with local school systems in Alabama. Initial results on Scantron were higher but the scores were mathematically adjusted to provide continuity with Aspire results. For more information on the history and issues shaping this transition, see PARCA’s report, Student Achievement Matters: the Future of Assessment is Now.

Before diving more deeply into the 2017-18 Scantron results, let’s quickly step back and see how proficiency rates across these tests compare.

Scantron scores are from 2018, ACT Aspire from 2017, ARMT from 2013, and the NAEP trendline from 2013 through 2017. Though Scantron and Aspire are different tests, this chart shows that proficiency levels are somewhat comparable, especially when compared to ARMT and NAEP. The percent proficient in NAEP is lower than found in all Alabama state tests. Given the respect accorded to NAEP as a national baseline, the extremely high proficiency rates from ARMT showed signs of a watered down test, which failed to serve as a respectable measure of authentic proficiency and progress in building college and work readiness. Results from ACT Aspire proved to be more comparable to NAEP, as do the proficiency levels from Scantron in 2018. When the new set of tests are launched in 2019, the results will establish a new baseline from which future improvement and growth can be measured.

Scantron Results for 2018

Comparing Subjects. Among the three subjects assessed, math generated the highest percentage of students scoring at or above proficiency (48 percent) across grades 3-8 combined. Reading was not far behind at 46 percent proficient. It was also true of the Aspire that students in grades 3-8 combined demonstrated higher proficiency in math than in reading. Science was only tested in the 5th and 7th grades and saw the lowest proficiency scores among the three subject on the 2018 Scantron tests, with only 38 percent proficient. With ACT Aspire, the percent proficient ranged from 35 to 39 percent.

Comparing Grade Levels. On Scantron, proficiency levels are generally higher in the lower grades. The highest single average is for 3rd-grade math at 58 percent proficient. The average across all grades for math, not counting the 3rd grade, is 45 percent. The average for reading, not counting 3rd grade, is now slightly higher than math at 46 percent. During the early grades, math and reading concern basic skills, but in the higher grades, math becomes more complex and introduces algebra. Reading instruction also becomes more demanding as students move from learning to read to reading for understanding.

The higher growth in reading from grade to grade is only marginal but might suggest that either students are more effectively learning the basics in reading as a foundation for later grades, or it may mean the material in math becomes a harder to master. By the time Alabama’s students reach high school, their college ACT scores in reading are higher than in math, and proficiency scores on the state Aspire test for 10th graders significantly drop, as low as 19 percent proficient in 2016-17.

The percent of students proficient in science drops from 40 percent of 5th graders to 36 percent of 7th graders. The low scores in science are worthy of concern. In addition to important content, science relates to problem-solving skills, reasoning, curiosity, critical thinking, good measurement skills, and applied learning. These are foundational skills for the workforce of tomorrow in Alabama.

Comparing Systems and Schools – How Did Your School Do? The tabs above list the percent proficient in each subject for all local systems and schools. Click on any one of those tabs and look up schools or local systems most important to you and see how they compare to other systems.

Clustering occurs where systems and schools perform similarly in all three subjects, especially among the wealthiest systems and poorest systems, but you can also find variation. For example, Sheffield City System is below the state average in science, with only 28 percent of its students demonstrating proficiency, and below in reading, with 39 percent proficient, but right at the state average in math, with 48 percent proficient. It would be useful to learn what is causing these differences and why some systems and schools are stronger in some subjects than others. Note that the vertical line shown in these charts represents the state average, providing a quick way to see how each system or school compares to the state as a whole.

In Alabama and across the country, differences in proficiency rates among various subgroups of students remains a concern.

  • Similar to Aspire, the percentage of students who are economically disadvantaged scoring proficient is about 25 percentage points lower than the percentage of non– economically disadvantaged students scoring proficient. This wide gap is the same across all three subjects, and holds up nationally as well.
  • At the same time, when comparing all subgroups, students who are African-American, English Learners, and in special education all perform at a lower level than do economically disadvantaged students as a group. Latinos, except those who are English learners, consistently attain higher levels of proficiency than African Americans. Among all the sub-groups English Learners appear to be struggling the most. They are ranked low in all subjects, especially science and reading – where they fall below all racial groups, economically disadvantaged students, and students in special education.
  • Wide gaps continue to exist between African-American students and both Asian and White students, and between Latino students and both Asian and White students. Differences in parental education level and income are factors that help explain these gaps, and differences in the quality of schools can also make a difference. Asian students are the highest performing racial group in math, reading, and science. Both African-American and Latino students score their best in math.
  • Female students in the state performed higher than males in math and significantly higher in reading, while male students scored slightly higher in science.
  • Finally, military students are among the higher performing groups in the state, though PARCA research has found gaps among racial groups within the military.

Students growing up economically disadvantaged are less likely to be read to in the early years, are exposed to fewer words, and are more likely to be exposed to health problems that can affect their capacity to learn in school and perform on tests. The education level and income of a student’s parents becomes a significant predictor of performance on standardized tests such as Scantron.

But some schools are better equipped to help all students learn, and some do better with less.

The scatterplot charts found in this section show the general correlation between proficiency levels and poverty levels. A school system’s proficiency rate determines its vertical position on the chart — the higher on the chart, the higher the proficiency rate. A system’s percent of economically disadvantaged students, measured by the percentage of students qualifying for free meals under the National School Lunch Program, determines the system’s position on the horizontal axis. Systems with a higher percentage of economically disadvantaged students will to the left of the chart and those with a lower percentage will be to the right of the chart.

Exceeding Expectations or Falling Short. The line displayed in the scatterplot is the average proficiency level for a given level of poverty. Those systems and schools above the line are exceeding expectations given their percent of economically disadvantaged students, and those below the line are falling short of expectations. These charts show that systems with similar poverty levels often show very different proficiency levels. In other words, school systems can and do exceed expectations through effective teaching, student support, and school organization and culture.

As an example, consider the chart on Scantron math performance and percent poverty. Saraland is exceeding expectations with 75 percent of their students scoring math proficient while 37 percent are economically disadvantaged. In contrast, in Pike Road only 16 percent of students are economically disadvantaged but only 47 percent are considered proficient in math. You can learn about the scores of each of these systems by clicking on the circles in the chart.

Conclusion

As Alabama rolls out its next suite of assessments it will be important to establish a baseline and provide feedback on the validity, reliability and usefulness of the new assessments. In the meantime, Scantron provides an assessment of performance that appears to be roughly comparable to Aspire in identifying strengths and where more attention is needed. The gaps that exist between school systems and among student subgroups continues to be an area where more work is needed, especially if Alabama is to fulfill its vision as a state characterized by a vibrant, innovative and relevant workforce.