Arizona schools could get a do-over on their A-through-F grades after the president of the State Board of Education, in conjunction with the Governor’s Office, decided that the school letter grades announced this week were flawed and need revision.
When Arizona State Board of Education President Tim Carter voted to finalize the state’s new A-F school grading system on Sept. 25, he was glad to be done with the grueling, yearlong process.
“I would just remind everybody that, almost to the day, it’s been one year since we started this process. And I have a fishing date with my grandson on Sunday, so we’re gonna put this issue to bed today,” he said.
Schools were given their official grades on Oct. 2, and the scores were set to be released publicly on Monday, Oct. 9, after the deadline to appeal the grades had passed.
But on the Friday before they released the scores, the Board of Education announced that the scores weren’t actually final — and the issue has not been put to bed.
Instead, Carter dubbed the scores “preliminary” and had Board of Education staff send out a press release announcing the board would review the grades, tweak the formula used to calculate those grades and offer another chance for schools to appeal their grades.
That new process, however, was news to members of the Board of Education and local school administrators.
Members of the board had never discussed making the scores preliminary, nor had they taken a vote to that effect. They hadn’t decided to allow a second round of appeals once the “final” scores were issued at some undetermined future date.
Legally, the Board of Education cannot decide policy without a vote by the board in a public meeting.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas, who is also a member of the board, said she wasn’t aware that the grades would be dubbed “preliminary” and that schools would have additional time to contest their grades.
Calvin Baker, the superintendent of Vail School District who also serves on the board, said he wasn’t aware of the policy change until he saw a press release board staff sent out announcing the revisions and review.
And schools were also surprised to hear that their A-through-F grades were suddenly “preliminary” since the Board of Education has explicitly said that other than pending appeals, the grades were final.
Tucson Unified School District Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo said when the board sent TUSD its grades, the board said that other than schools that filed a timely appeal under the stringent grounds the board outlined, the scores were final.
“Actually, the first I’m hearing that the scores may not be final is from you right now,” he told the Arizona Daily Star.
Carter said he made the call to continue reviewing the scores and formula after discussion with Gov. Doug Ducey’s office, board staff and schools. He said the Governor’s Office was heavily in support of the review.
“I certainly wasn’t usurping the board’s authority,” Carter said. “Our collective thinking was (the grades) shouldn’t be final, and I don’t think the board will have an issue with that.”
He said the board will likely approve that decision at its next meeting on Oct. 23.
The new grades were designed to be based on a broader criteria and be more stringent than past letter grades. As a result, there are significantly fewer “A” schools than under the past A-through-F model, which the state did away with in 2015.
And almost immediately after schools got their first look at the scores, they started crying foul.
The grades aren’t just for bragging rights. They’re also tied to state funding, as “A” schools will receive additional money from the state, starting next year.
Some schools said the data the Department of Education used to calculate their scores were inaccurate, or that the data were correct, but due to coding issues, produced inaccurate scores.
The formula uses different criteria for grading K-8 schools and high schools, and for schools that didn’t fit neatly into the standard K-8 and 9-12 grade designations, an automatic review of the school grades issued was triggered.
Finally, many advocates for low-income district schools argued that the formula still relied too much on one standardized test — the AzMERIT test — and that the school grades, like the test scores, showed such a sharp correlation with poverty statistics that it was essentially just a measurement of poverty.
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.
On the flip side, many high-performing charter schools argued that the formula was problematic because schools are awarded a significant number of points based on their ability to show academic growth in students.
BASIS Charter Schools CEO Peter Bezanson sent an email to parents blasting the new A-F formula, saying the grades “punish schools for being high performing.”
“Simply put, the formula does not work to measure academic quality at schools that have students who have reached high levels of proficiency,” he wrote.
But of the roughly 17,000 school grades issued, only 70 grades were appealed.
Schools appealed for a variety of reasons. Amphitheater Unified School District appealed two of its grades, at Helen Keeling Elementary and L M Prince Elementary, because there was loud and distracting construction going on during the testing period.
However, the vast majority of schools that appealed or were listed as under review were charters.
Though they make up less than 30 percent of schools in the state, charters comprise nearly 60 percent of the schools listed as under review either because of formal appeals or their unusual grade configuration.
That statistic led some public district school advocates to question whether the surprise move to review all scores was prompted by charters lobbying Ducey, who has made school choice a political priority.
Ducey spokesman Daniel Scarpinato said the governor thinks there’s “broad agreement” from “all quarters of the education community” that the formula isn’t ready for prime time.
But he said the push to change the formula won’t benefit just charters.
“I think if you look at the policies we’ve put forward and where our focus has been in real dollars, it has been traditional schools. All schools have a voice in our administration, and a big voice.
The vast majority of schools the governor visits are district schools, and that’s because those are the schools most students in Arizona attend,” he said.
Arizona Charter School Association President Eileen Sigmund said her organization, and its member schools, pressured the Governor’s Office, the Board of Education, the Department of Education and anyone else who would listen, to review the scores for this year’s grades to make sure that schools receive an accurate, fair grade.
“We need to revisit the formula before schools are harmed and parents are misled,” she said, noting that schools only had a week to review the data, which wasn’t enough time to determine if it was valid.
On top of the growth issue that high-performing charters have complained about, she noted that many charters didn’t receive a grade because they were too small to be counted — which can harm their ability to receive additional funding based on the grades.
Overall, only about half of all charter schools in the state received a grade, she said.
A HERCULEAN TASK
Baker, the Vail superintendent, said not everyone hated the formula or the grades. In fact, most of the feedback he has received has been positive.
The number of appeals equates to a small fraction of all Arizona schools, and that while there were some flaws in the system, the overall formula is still strong, he said.
The real issue, he said, is that some schools are receiving lower grades than they’ve become accustomed to.
“Any time the number of high grades go down — and this time it was about a 50 percent reduction (in the number of “A” grades) — people are going to be upset,” he said.
Both he and Carter said the Legislature, which mandated the A-through-F grades, gave them a Herculean task that didn’t make a lot of sense to begin with. Both argued a single letter grade doesn’t offer parents the kind of in-depth information they need to make decisions about their children’s education.
But the botched grade rollout process has highlighted the problems in the system the Legislature set up. Many lawmakers are calling for a redo of the process and talking about changing the law next year.
Even the lawmaker who sponsored the bill requiring the Board of Education to create the new A-through-F scores isn’t happy about how it was implemented.
Republican Sen. Sylvia Allen of Snowflake co-founded the George Washington Academy charter school, which received an “F” grade. Now she says the system needs legislative changes.
“I think we have not hit it right. I think it’s flawed,” she told the Arizona Capitol Times this week.
Carter said he would be happy to revisit the whole concept of an A-through-F grade, and he would favor collecting a host of indicators to put into a dashboard that would give parents more information.
But for now, the law says the Board of Education will issue a single letter grade, and Carter has sworn to uphold the law.
“The bigger question is: Do we serve Arizona well by a single letter grade?” he asked.