Schools recently received their final, official letter grades, and many Tucson-area schools improved — not because of anything they did, but because the Arizona State Board of Education made the scoring easier for almost everyone.
Of roughly 250 district and charter schools in Pima County, 21 saw their grades improve. Two campuses — TUSD’s Santa Rita and Pueblo high schools — actually dropped a grade. Pueblo dropped from a C to a D, while Santa Rita dropped from a D to an F.
Nine schools that were previously listed as “under review” earned grades, and another 25 schools, mostly charters, were still under review or not eligible for a grade.
In its re-evaluation of the grades issued for the 2016-17 school year — seven months after grades were released and dubbed “preliminary” at the last minute — the Board of Education dropped the number of points necessary to earn many grades.
For example, under the old formula, earning 86 points out of 100 would qualify a school for an A. Under the finalized formula, an A grade is anything above an 83.8 for high schools, or above 84.7 points for K-8 schools.
And those few points made a big difference for some schools.
Sahuarita Intermediate School in the Sahuarita Unified School District, for example, earned 72.5 points, which was a C under the old cut scores. But when the Board of Education dropped the cutoff for a B from 74 points to 72.4 points, the school narrowly slid into the B category. The same thing happened to Tucson Unified School District’s Blenman Elementary School, which earned 72.8 points, a C under the old cut scores but a B now.
For TUSD’s Pistor Middle School, the lowered cut scores made the difference from a failing grade to a barely passing D grade. The school earned 49.5 points, just shy of a D under the old cut scores, but a solid D under the new scores.
Tucson High Magnet School earned 70.4 points, which was a C under the old formula, but a B now.
The Board of Education also changed the way it calculated student growth in the preliminary grades after higher-performing schools, like Basis, complained that it limited their ability to capture growth points.
Some schools, like Amphitheater Unified School District’s Painted Sky Elementary, actually lost points when the Board of Education recalculated growth points. But with the cut score change, Painted Sky was still able to narrowly capture a B grade, rather than its preliminary C.
But the state also raised the bar at the bottom end of the spectrum for high schools, increasing the minimum of points that a high school needs to get a D from 41 to 42.4.
That pushed TUSD’s Santa Rita High School, which had a score of 41, just barely a D under the old scoring system, to an F.
Other schools benefited or suffered from changes to the way the Board of Education calculated points for English Language Learners. Those points are awarded based on the statewide average, which changed when schools that were originally not given preliminary grades were added to the mix, according to the Board of Education.
TUSD’s Pueblo High School dropped to a D after losing two points from its ELL score, leaving it just 0.3 of a point short of a C grade. Others benefited from that change, like Davidson Elementary in TUSD, which gained two ELL points and boosted itself from a C to a B.
When the preliminary grades were released in October, school administrators attempted to tamp down concerns that they had received low grades by noting that the new scoring system was much harder than the old one.
Vail School District Superintendent Calvin Baker, a member of the Arizona State Board of Education who helped develop the model used to determine letter grades, emailed his district’s parents in October to warn them the grades might not be as good as they’ve come to expect.
“Under the previous system almost all schools in Vail typically received an ‘A’ grade. That may change under the new system,” he wrote, adding, in a bold font, that, “The new system is significantly more difficult.”
But with the revisions, the new system became less difficult.
Statewide, schools improved under the new finalized scoring system, with more schools achieving A and B grades, and fewer receiving C, D and F grades.
Fifty-nine percent of K-8 schools statewide received an A or B after revisions to the letter grade formula, up from 54 percent under the preliminary grades. Only 12 percent received a D or F under the final grades, down from 16 percent in preliminary grades.
Fifty-five percent of high schools scored an A or B under the final revisions, up from 51 percent in the preliminary grades.
But poverty is still one of the strongest indicators of a school’s letter grade.
The correlation is stark. More than half of K-8 schools with little to no students receiving free and reduced lunch got an A. No schools with a low population of students on free and reduced lunch received a D or F.
For schools with a high population of students receiving free and reduced lunch, only 5 percent received an A. More than 20 percent received a D or F.
The same trend holds in high schools, where 88 percent of schools with a low free-and-reduced-price lunch population received an A or B grade. Only 27 percent of schools with high poverty received an A or B. No wealthy schools received a D or F, but 29 percent of poorer schools got those low grades.