Tim Steller: AZ grading system hurts 3 Edge schools

2013-05-22T00:00:00Z 2013-05-22T10:49:00Z Tim Steller: AZ grading system hurts 3 Edge schoolsTim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
May 22, 2013 12:00 am  • 

You can't say that schools for lower-performing students get no recognition.

Edge High School in Tucson takes in students from difficult backgrounds - about one out of 10 is homeless, many are parents or pregnant, some are sixth- or seventh-year seniors - and helps them graduate.

Last year the state recognized each of Edge's three charter high schools - with a D grade. Two more years of D's and the schools will be on the road toward a failing status.

Rob Pecharich, Edge's principal, looked me up after reading my columns on Basis Tucson and University High School, in which I lamented that those schools seem to be ranked high largely on the basis of the high-flying students they attract and their Advanced-Placement curricula.

Pecharich's basic argument: The reverse is also true. Schools are punished for the low-performing, largely low-income students they bring in.

"We have a lot of students who are the primary breadwinners in their families," Pecharich told me Tuesday at his office in the school near Himmel Park in midtown. "Not all populations are the same, and it's time to stop treating them as such."

Edge is a charter school with 250 total students, most at the school on East First Street, but also at schools in Sahuarita and the northwest side.

The state Department of Education began giving schools letter grades in the 2010-11 school year, though some schools, including Edge, didn't get their first grades until last year for various reasons. The system doesn't withhold funding for schools that get low grades - for now, the grades serve more as consumer advisories.

But schools that receive three D's in a row are in danger of failing and being put on a path toward reorganization or closure. Last week, the State Board for Charter Schools revoked the charter of Allsports Academy in Tucson after it received an F grade from the Department of Education and failed to improve adequately this year, in the board's view.

So, for schools such as Edge, there is a dilemma, as Pecharich and Edge school board President Greg Hart wrote in a letter to education officials: "If we continue to accept the young people we have chosen to serve as part of our mission since 1995, we will eventually become a failing school."

The consequences of continuing to serve kids on the margins could ramp up after this year. A bill before the state Legislature - held up now by the debate over Medicaid expansion - would make a school's funding level dependent on measures of performance and hurt schools such as Edge.

Key among those measures: the school's letter grade.

On Gov. Jan Brewer's website is a tool for finding out how a given school or district's funding would change under the system. Edge would lose about $22,000 a year, Pecharich said.

"It seems to create a situation where the rich get richer," Pecharich said. "Schools that serve the disadvantaged population and need the money more, get less."

Now, it wouldn't be fair to say the education department's evaluation system ignores the academic level of the students a school brings in. Half of each school's grade depends on "growth" - that is, measures of the students' improvement based largely on tests - while the other half is based on AIMS test results, graduation rates, dropout rates and the percentage of English-language learners who finish that program.

Beyond that, there is a separate grading system for schools categorized as "alternative schools." Edge is not considered an alternative school now, but the board is considering pursuing that classification, although they don't like what they consider the stigma attached to the label.

The alternative-schools evaluation model puts more emphasis on improvement than the traditional model does, but Pecharich thinks it still falls short of appreciating what schools like Edge do. For example, he said, Edge often brings in students as seniors who are in their fifth, sixth, or seventh year of high school. That hurts their graduation rate, which is based on the percentage of students finishing high school by the end of their fifth year, and hence hurts the school's letter grade.

The performance-funding bill attempts to consider both the improvement a school makes from its baseline and the achievement level its students attain. Theoretically, that rewards both disadvantaged students who start at a lower level but improve and advantaged students who tend to perform at a higher level.

But an independent February analysis found that wealthier schools and districts would benefit the most from the system. That would hurt students like the ones Edge serves.

"Their potential is as formidable as any kid at Basis or University High," Hart told me. "But they're dealing with issues in their lives."

Before the state punishes schools like Edge in the name of accountability, it must find a way to fully account for where they're coming from.

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@azstarnet.com or 807-8427. On Twitter: @senyorreporter

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