Letter grades

A new formula proposed to calculate school letter grades could result in fewer A-rated schools across Arizona.

Arizona Daily Star/

The new letter grades issued to local schools by the Arizona Department of Education may have left you wondering whether you've made the right decision about your child's school.

Or, maybe you're researching open enrollment options for next school year and are not sure what to think now. 

It's understandable. You want the best education possible for your child. 

But, how much weight you should put on a school's letter grade is kind of up in the air at this point.

Letter grade recap

Rather than being based solely on test scores, the new grading system puts more weight on growth in student performance than it does on skill level. Half of each school's grade comes from improvement on test scores rather than the score itself. 

It was designed this way to give lower performing schools the chance to receive higher grades despite low test scores. 

It's not just about a school's bragging rights either. Grades will be be used to determine if schools should receive additional "performance funding" from the state starting next year. 

While you don't want to ignore the grades (they do offer insight into a school's performance), you shouldn't freak out if your child's school didn't score an A, as long as you've been happy with the school and your kids are thriving.

Here's why:

1. Letter grades do not paint the whole picture

The new grading system is based on a few things: AzMERIT scores, student growth, high school graduation rates and college and career readiness and English-learners' scores.

High performing charter schools have voiced concerns that the formula's emphasis on growth means that schools with high performing students may have been penalized under the new grading system. That's because students with high marks year-over-year don't show much growth or change on test scores. 

Critics say it does not equalize the impact of socioeconomic status on school grades. Under the current formula, only 5 percent of high-poverty schools received an A, while roughly 25 percent received Ds or Fs. By contrast, half of low-poverty schools received A’s, 90 percent received A’s or B’s, and none received an F or a D.

The grading system also does not reflect what goes on in your child's class, how great (or not so great) the teachers are and a child's emotional welfare. In other words, just because a school received a lower grade does not mean your child wouldn't do well there. 

Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association, said, at the end of the day, the grades are too simplified and don’t tell parents what they really need to know before deciding on a school.

“The real issue is that we’ve never measured schools adequately or correctly. People would learn more about a hotel by going to hotels.com than they would about a school by looking at its letter grade,” he said.

David Baker, Superintendent of the Flowing Wells Unified School District, said that while the grades are helpful for parents to quickly evaluate a school’s performance, it’s an overly simplistic representation that doesn’t capture a lot of what goes on in a school or classroom.

“I think we’re trying to make a complicated process of evaluating the effect of a school on a child’s educational development into a very narrow A-through-F label. And that’s very hard to do,” he said.

Other important things to consider when looking for a school that are not reflected in the letter grades are: What programs are offered, homework policies, discipline policies, services the school has for students, student-to-teacher ratio and teacher turnover rates. 

Parents can get that information by asking their school administration or by searching district websites. 

2. Your child's school probably hasn't changed much

Obviously, your child's school could be going through some stuff. But chances are the performance level hasn't drastically changed for the worse since last year. 

What has changed is the way the state has configured grades. So, if your school had an A or B in previous years and it went down to a C, don't freak out, as long as your child is happy and doing well academically.

If you want information on test scores to see how your child's school is faring, click here. You can see scores year-over-year. 

3. The grades are not real yet

Due to concerns about incorrect data, possible coding issues and unusual grade configurations, the state has made the grades preliminary. 

Around 200 schools are under review or appeal. And, more than 100 grades were withheld because of nontraditional grade configurations such as schools that offer sixth through 12th grades. That's because K-8 and high schools are graded on different criteria, leaving the schools that offer both wondering how their grades were figured. 

The state board hopes to have grades finalized in January. 

Click here to check your school's current letter grade.

Includes reporting from the Arizona Daily Star's education reporter, Hank Stephenson.

Angela Pittenger | This Is Tucson