Mary Anne Jester, left, talks about how to measure school success. Beth Brenner is at center; Tori Schroeder is at right.

Mamta Popat / Arizona Daily Star

There should be less reliance on state standardized testing scores and more focus on individual student growth in how Arizona schools’ success is measured, local teachers say.

The Arizona Board of Education formed a statewide committee of educators to re-establish the formula that decides the letter grades used to label Arizona’s schools. The committee’s goal is to make a recommendation to the state board in December.

If all goes according to schedule, schools would receive their new letter grades by the end of the current school year.

The Star spoke with about a dozen local teachers from the Tucson Unified and Sunnyside districts to get their take on what should be factored into measuring school success.

They want a system that rewards and encourages academic excellence but weighs progress more heavily and does not stigmatize or punish struggling schools.

The existing formula used the old state standardized testing system, AIMS, to determine the growth and proficiency, which were accounted for in equal portions, of schools. At the high school level, college and career readiness was also a factor.

“Generally in the field, school leaders and teachers wanted to include more than just testing data,” said Charles Tack, a spokesman for state Education Department. The state board wants to include other measures, including dropout rates, attendance and also take into account changes required under a new federal law, the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The A-F accountability committee’s goal is to find a formula that would better represent what’s going on in the state’s schools, said Pearl Chang Esau, president and CEO of Expect More Arizona and a member of the state committee.

It’s considering a weighted model, where schools can earn more or less points based on the level of proficiency, that takes growth and proficiency into account equally and other measures, including English language learners’ progress.

“Letter grades should not be a reflection of student demographic but the impact of educators in that school,” she said. From a parent perspective, Esau said she would like to see more resources being invested in low rated schools and strong leadership being put in place to ensure improvement.

ONE-SIZE-FITS-ALL

When people see an A, B, or a C label on a school, “What is it that we’re truly looking at?” asks Clarinda Rubio, an English-language arts teacher at Mansfeld Middle School.

Technically speaking, it’s a reflection of how the school’s students perform on the state standardized test, which teachers say don’t show school climate or the quality of the teaching staff.

“We don’t use just one thing to grade a student,” said Mary Ann Jester, fifth-grade teacher at Sierra 2-8 School.

A lot goes into determining a student’s success in the classroom, so her question to those crafting a new formula is: Why should schools be judged on just standardized testing scores?

Considering the socioeconomic, demographic and resource-level differences at each school, there couldn’t be a “one-size-fits-all” approach to measuring school success, said Christy Sainz, an honors English teacher at Tucson High Magnet School.

There are nearly 2,000 schools statewide with more than 1 million students, who come from a vast range of backgrounds. Those schools and students are governed by more than 200 school districts and 400 charter holders.

“Everything about the school has to be taken into account,” she said, including extracurricular activities, intervention programs and project-based learning.

Most teachers interviewed recognized the necessity of standardized testing as a way to measure where students are academically, but also said test scores are just part of the academic reality for most students. Therefore, relying on those scores to label schools, they say, can be problematic.

“I get that there are so many variables, but we have multiple assessments” said Beth Brenner, an eighth-grade English teacher at Sierra 2-8 who has been teaching for two years. “It doesn’t have to be just that one test.”

Putting a letter grade on a school also indirectly punishes the schools that receive bad ratings, some of the teachers said.

“It labels the kids just like it labels the schools,” said Mary Martinez, a second-grade teacher at Sierra 2-8 and the president of the Sunnyside Education Association. “It labels the community.”

A low school rating perpetuates a bad cycle where parents don’t want to send their children to a badly rated school, teachers don’t want to work there, which worsens the teacher shortage problem, and the students feel like failures, she and Jester said.

To them, the ratings are more a reflection of each school’s socioeconomic status, rather than the quality of teachers or programs. The ratings do not effectively consider the numerous challenges schools in low income areas are faced with, they said.

“It needs to be made more real, and not just a number or a letter,” Jester said.

GROWTH OVER PROFICIENCY

The teachers the Star spoke to generally preferred to weigh growth more heavily than proficiency.

“Growth, for us, is tremendous,” Jester of Sierra 2-8 said. “Proficiency, we’re getting there little bit by little bit.”

But the teachers also recognized that putting a greater emphasis on growth could seem unfair for already A-rated schools with high rates of proficiency that don’t really have much room to grow.

Some of the teachers suggested scaling growth so that already highly proficient schools can still gain those points but also reward low rated schools that are showing improvements.

“If you focus on growth, you’re going to increase your proficiency rate,” said Tori Schroeder, a ninth-grade English teacher at Desert View High School. “I don’t think it’s wrong to have some emphasis on proficiency. At the same time, we have to then figure out a way for the ratings not to feel like rewards and punishment.”

Schroeder added that for the high school report card formula, access to college and career programs, including career and technical education programs and Advanced Placement classes, should be considered.

She also liked the idea of having narratives added to each school’s report card so that parents would know why the schools got the grades they got from the state.

“There has to be some acknowledgement that different schools have very different needs,” she said. “Two schools can be making different choices about how they prioritize their time and money and they could both be right choices.”

Contact reporter Yoohyun Jung at 573-4243 or yjung@tucson.com.