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SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 30, 2007
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Test scores hurting economy

When the “Today” show broadcast nationally recently that Decatur City Schools is “a bad school system,” Decatur residents knew better. The broadcast was a reminder, however, of the devastating impact low test scores are having on Decatur’s economy.

Decatur is not attracting new residents, and it’s killing us. Building permits are declining. The number of people getting mortgages is falling. The labor force is shrinking. We should be reaping population benefits from the spectacular economic growth in Huntsville, but we are not. Athens, Madison, Hartselle and Priceville are growing faster than the state, but not Decatur.

Decatur has inexpensive housing and excellent recreation. Its Achilles’ heel is its school test scores, available to and studied by parents moving to North Alabama. The coming influx to Redstone Arsenal should be a golden opportunity, but test scores continue to be a barrier to Decatur’s residential growth.

In the 2006-07 school year, eighth-graders taking the Stanford Achievement Test of reading in Decatur City Schools on average scored in the 48th percentile of the nation. That score placed it even with the statewide average and below the U.S. average.

Test scores

The score placed it dead last among communities with which Decatur competes for residents. Percentiles for eighth-grade readers in a few other school systems: Madison (74), Hartselle (65), Athens (60), Limestone County (57), Huntsville (55), Morgan County (55) and Florence (50). Decatur was last place in its eighth-grade math and language scores as well.

Decatur test scores are comparatively low in almost every demographic category, but two stand out. More than 6 percent of Decatur students, for the most part Hispanics, have “limited English proficiency.”

Those students averaged in the 13th percentile on the eighth-grade reading test last year. Other school systems had smaller percentages of students with limited English proficiency: Madison, 3 percent; Limestone County, 1 percent; Hartselle, 3 percent; Athens, 4 percent; Florence, 4 percent; Morgan County, 2 percent.

Poverty rate

Similarly, Decatur City Schools struggles with a frighteningly high poverty rate. Forty-seven percent of the eighth-graders came from families living in poverty. Their average reading scores — in the 31st percentile — were much lower than their more affluent classmates.

By contrast, only 13 percent of Madison City eighth-graders came from an impoverished home. In Hartselle, 25 percent were in poverty. In Athens, 40 percent.

The problem is not simple demographics, though. Between their third-grade and eighth-grade tests, Decatur students dropped, in reading, from the 54th percentile nationally to the 48th; Madison students climbed from the 71st to the 74th percentile.

Many professionals taking jobs in Huntsville or elsewhere in North Alabama look at the readily accessible test scores — scores like those viewed by the “Today” show — and choose to live elsewhere.

Those same professionals will spend their housing and retail dollars elsewhere.

They will deposit their money in non-Decatur banks.

They will invest their tax dollars into other cities and other school systems.

The most dramatic, and tragic, impact of low scores is on the students who are making them. The most universal impact, though, is on the Decatur economy. It’s a community problem.

Decatur’s economy depends on the city becoming more attractive to new residents. Having an excellent school system is not enough. It needs to be able to demonstrate its excellence, through test scores, to outsiders.

Contact Eric Fleischauer at eric@decaturdaily.com.

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Eric Fleischauer
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