Schools Get Conflicting Ratings Report From The State

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Rim Country Middle School is either doing great — or just about to flunk, depending on which state measuring system you believe.

The Arizona Department of Education this week slapped grades on every school in the state, which sometimes contrasted dramatically with the also released scores from the previous ratings system.

Strangely enough, Rim Country Middle School got a “D” under the new system, but remained “performing plus” under the old system, with those numbers also released this week.

Overall, the district rated a “B” under the new system, partly because Frontier Elementary School got an “A.”

Meantime, both the Pine-Strawberry Elementary School District and the Tonto Basin School District earned grades of B under the new system.

As it turns out, Payson this year shut down its highest-rated school — Frontier. That leaves just Julia Randall Elementary and Payson Elementary — both of which earned “Bs” under the new system. Julia Randall rated as “highly performing” under the old label while Payson Elementary ranked as “performing plus.”

Payson High School got a “C” under the new system, but remained “highly performing” under the old system.

The state plans to phase out the old ratings and stick with the letter grades in the next three years.

Once the new system is in place, schools that get a “D” three years in a row face the threat of a state or federal takeover.

Schools with fewer than 125 students were exempted from the grading system, which mostly consisted of charter schools.

State Superintendent of Education John Huppenthal released a statement saying, “We believe the A-F letter grade system is a game-changer that will be a powerful driver of improving education for years to come.” The new ratings model a system put in place by Florida.

Both ratings systems rely heavily on student performance on the AIMS tests of basic knowledge of reading, writing, math and science, with additional points based on things like the dropout rate.

The new system gives much added weight to whether the scores of the bottom 25 percent of students rise from year to year.

Payson Superintendent Casey O’Brien said the ratings will likely confuse parents and insisted that Rim Country Middle School just barely missed the score needed for a C. He said the grades for the district’s schools had changed repeatedly in the past few weeks as the state kept adjusting the scores.

“Are we concerned? Absolutely,” said O’Brien of the middle school’s low grade. “And we know why: Our lower socio-economic group of kids are underperforming — particularly in math.

“So we have some areas we need to target. But it’s not all bad news. The middle school’s performing plus level shows that overall the school is consistent with where it needs to be.”

The old system emphasized overall AIMS scores, without giving added weight to the bottom 25 percent.

Critics of the ratings say the scores don’t reflect hard-to-test features like art and music programs and fear the new ratings will cause schools to neglect electives and high-performing students to focus mostly on the weakest and least-motivated students.

O’Brien said only a small percentage of the state’s schools or districts got an “A” label under the new system.

Almost all of the “A” schools remain in wealthy school districts where most of the students grew up in homes of parents with college educations.

That’s a worrisome trend for Payson, where the recession resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of low-income families in the district.

A stunning 70 percent of the district’s students now qualify for the free and reduced school lunch program based on family income.

“I do have concerns,” said O’Brien.

“If the focus becomes overly centered on the bottom quartile: what’s happening to the kids in the middle? And what’s happening to the high achieving kids for whom we’re not providing enough challenging curriculum?

“We’re going to see real pressure on schools and districts to see more growth in the lowest performing group of kids.”

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