Arizona has decided how it will adapt its hotly debated A-F letter grading system to assess over a dozen school districts and charter systems that ditched AzMerit this school year in favor of college-prep exams like the SAT and ACT.

This year, the State Board of Education will judge student growth based on how specific cohorts of students, broken down by race/ethnicity, disability status, socioeconomic status and English-language learner status, performed on AzMerit, SAT or ACT. It will also factor in those cohorts’ dropout and graduation rates.

This is a shift from previous years, where the state determined a significant portion of any school’s grade based on improvement or deterioration in individual students’ AzMerit scores, year to year.

The change — which has only been approved for the current academic year — allows schools to retain their letter grade from last year if it ends up being better than the grade they receive under the temporary grading system. The system will break student scores down into four categories, according to Arizona Department of Education spokesman Stefan Swiat.

The department has determined the names of those levels and the “cut scores,” or score ranges used to identify how students performed on AzMerit, but not for ACT or SAT, Swiat said in an email. However, if a student’s score falls into either of the top two levels, they will be scored as “proficient,” regardless of the test they took.

The department is still working with stakeholders to model the scoring system so it fairly and accurately compares student performance across exams, Swiat said.

“This is still a work in progress,” Swiat wrote in an email to the Star. The State Board approved the temporary grading system at its April 15 meeting.

Roughly 71% of schools would maintain the same letter grade they received last school year under the new model, according to a State Board presentation. Around 15% would receive a higher grade, and 14% would receive lower grades.

The change to the letter grading system is temporary because Arizona’s decision to allow school districts to administer different types of tests instead of the state’s AzMerit assessment has been found to violate the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

Going forward, at least for the next few years, school districts will have to revert to having students take AzMerit while the state works to develop a system that complies with federal requirements.

In Tucson, three school districts opted out of AzMerit for high schoolers — Flowing Wells, Tanque Verde and TUSD.

Tests vary by district

Before this year, the education department dubbed students “minimally proficient,” “partially proficient,” “proficient” or “highly proficient,” based on their AzMerit scores. With AIMS, AzMerit’s predecessor, students either “approached,” “met” or “exceeded” the state’s academic standards for English/language arts, math and science.

But equally and accurately assessing schools and assigning them letter grades largely determined by test scores is impossible if students are taking a variety of exams, school accountability experts say.

The State Board didn’t come to a consensus on the new accountability system for months after giving school districts the option of opting out of AzMerit in favor of other college prep exams for this reason.

Board members, including Vail School District Superintendent Calvin Baker, wanted to find a way to measure student growth or test score improvement over time, across AzMerit and the menu-approved assessments, despite experts’ warnings this wouldn’t be possible this year.

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“The A through F model must include the factor of student growth,” Baker told the Star after the State Board discussed potential changes to the grading system in March. “And I think there are ways to do that even though the testing systems are different.”

Baker suggested measuring growth through another factor, like GPA, over standardized tests, but this method hasn’t been considered by the board, so far.

Multiple accountability advisory committees have told the board measuring and comparing growth between assessments like AzMerit — which students take six times between their freshman and junior years — and SAT or ACT — which students only take once their junior year — isn’t backed by research and isn’t reliable or defensible.

“We’ve been at this since October,” committee member Janice Palmer, the vice president and director of policy at the Helios Education Foundation, said at the March meeting. “We just don’t see how we do it this year.”

Audrey Amrein-Beardsley, a school accountability researcher at Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, served on one of the State Board’s accountability advisory committees.

It has been difficult to persuade the board that measuring growth between three different assessments is a bad idea, Amrein-Beardsley said.

“Seems like over time, there is less interest in actual technical expertise and more interest in pushing this darn thing through,” Amrein-Beardsley said of the test menu’s impact on the letter grading system .

Additionally, the grading model adopted for this school year is “very confusing,” Amrein-Beardsley said.

The push to measure student proficiency across exams appears to be supported by political and personal convictions rather than research or evidence-based practices, she said. “It seems like a bunch of square pegs are being fit (or forced) into round holes,” Amrein-Beardsley wrote.

Contact reporter Brenna Bailey at bbailey@tucson.com or 520-573-4279. On Twitter: @brennanonymous.

Reporter

Brenna explains how national, state and local K-12 education issues impact Tucson schools. She's a proud product of Arizona public schools. Send her news tips, story ideas and existential life questions at bbailey@tucson.com.