Finally, the state is judging schools in part by considering the academic level of the students that they receive.
Finally, schools that teach a difficult student body have a chance to get a decent grade by helping those students improve.
Finally, schools that recruit or receive a high-flying student body aren’t being rewarded with high grades just for that.
So naturally, as a result, powerful people are pushing back against this change, complaining that the new state system for grading schools isn’t fair. The traditional good schools aren’t getting the same high marks they’re used to.
That’s the situation we find ourselves in after the State Board of Education issued its final grades on the performance of the state’s public schools in late September.
These school grades, required by state law, used a new system of judging K-8 schools, developed in a deliberative, yearlong process, that values growth in student performance more highly than their overall skill level — or “proficiency.” Fifty percent of each school’s grade comes from the student body’s improvement in scores and only 30 percent comes from the level of those scores.
So, as a result, relatively low performing schools like Summit View Elementary in the Sunnyside Unified School District were able to attain high grades despite low test scores. Summit View got a B in the new grading system, thanks in large measure to the improvement shown in the students’ test scores, even though the vast majority did not get passing marks in the latest standardized tests.
Some elite schools suffered from that same change: Even though their students scored well on tests, their improvement was not great enough to give the schools adequate points. That helps explain why suddenly, on Oct. 9, the board changed the status of the school grades from final to “preliminary.”
The CEO of the BASIS charter-school chain, Peter Bezanson, said in a letter to parents before the grades were publicly released: “BASIS Schools, BASIS.ed, superintendents of key districts, and other charter operators have been expressing concern that the state’s new formula for calculating letter grades will not work to identify the highest performing schools, and that it might very well punish schools for being high performing.”
“As you examine the preliminary results, you will see that those voices of discontent are correct,” he went on. “Schools that scored at the absolute top on the AZ Merit test, and schools that had the highest percentages of highly proficient students — especially at K-8 grade levels — have not received the highest possible grades.”
Complaints of unfairness
Naturally, the State Board of Education buckled under the pressure. At a meeting last week, it referred the whole issue to a new technical advisory committee for review.
At the meeting, Eileen Sigmund, president and CEO of the Arizona Charter Schools Association, told the board, “The new formula appears to penalize schools in which a majority of students were already at proficiency.”
Later on, I asked Sigmund whether she is challenging the new formula’s emphasis on growth in student scores rather than proficiency. She said no, not for now. What she wants corrected first, she said, are data integrity issues, coding issues and other problems related to whether the existing standards were correctly implemented in the first place. Then she’ll consider pushing issues like the grading formula.
She noted that charter schools may be closed based on their letter grades, so they need to be done accurately.
“We’ve always been strong proponents of accountability because charters were created to improve student achievement,” she said.
Other speakers at the board meeting criticized the new standards for creating unexpected results that seemed unfair.
Diana Asseier, superintendent of the Lake Havasu Unified School District, noted that a middle school in her district received an “F” grade despite performing around average on tests and having strong attendance.
“Many schools that are performing in single-digit proficiency ranges are not getting F grades,” she said. “Schools that are really failing students are getting what the public considers passing grades.”
Intrigued by her comment, I did a little digging into the K-8 schools with the lowest proficiency ratings. What I found was that among the 100 schools with the lowest proficiency ratings, 20 received F grades, 49 received D grades, 18 received C grades, one received a B grade. The remaining 12 were not rated. Summit View was not among those 100 schools, by the way.
That distribution doesn’t strike me as especially generous to low-performing schools.
When I spoke with Calvin Baker, the superintendent of Vail schools and a member of the State Board of Education, he defended the new system.
“All systems are flawed,” he said. “Some are useful.”
In this case, he said, the weight given to growth may not be perfect and it ought to be more easy for schools to understand what they need to do to achieve a higher grade, but overall it’s a useful measure.
“I’m not sure that it needs to be 50 percent,” he said of the weight of the growth measure. “It might be more reasonable at 40 percent. But it’s in the ballpark.”
While I’m happy to see that low-performing schools that improve their students’ performance have a chance at a good grade, I do recognize one point made by the high-flying schools. There should not be an upper limit on growth, as there is in the current system.
A student who is learning at an exceedingly high level should be able to grow just as much as a student performing at a low level. And that growth should be rewarded equally, rather than giving special weight to improvement among lower-performing students, as occurs now.
Bezanson, of BASIS, and the Arizona School Boards Association, which represents district schools, have also proposed a “float weight” measure. Under that, high-performing schools would have their grades count students’ proficiency more highly than growth, and low-proficiency schools could be judged by their students’ growth more than proficiency.
That is a workable solution, one that would please most people, though it could dilute the meaning of higher school grades.
But I’m just happy that our system no longer rewards schools simply for attracting students that are already doing great. Instead, it gives a chance to schools like Summit View that have a harder challenge due to their tougher student bodies.
The new system perhaps requires some tweaks, but it shouldn’t be subject to wholesale change just because those who are used to A’s didn’t necessarily get them.