State Flinches From Grading K-12 Schools

At the last minute, department of education postpones issuing grades that would pan 59 percent of schools

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Poised on the brink of issuing dismal report cards for the state’s school districts, the Arizona Department of Education this week flinched.

As a result, local school districts will continue to critique and negotiate the state’s school rankings, Payson Superintendent Casey O’Brien told the school board Monday.

“They now say they’ll release the ratings ‘sometime in the future,’” said O’Brien, who noted that the state had already repeatedly changed the still-confidential draft ratings of each school in the district.

The latest version of the ratings would give a grade of “A” to only 16 percent of the state’s schools. Another 25 percent would get “B’s”, said O’Brien.

That means a full 59 percent of the schools in the state would get a grade of “C” or “D.” The state won’t issue any “F’s” in the first round, said O’Brien.

Newly elected State Superintendent of Education John Hupenthal campaigned on a promise to issue letter grades for every school in the state to replace the current rating system that relies on labels like “excelling,” “performing” and “underperforming.”

Half of the new letter grade will be based on the school’s improvement in test scores from year to year, including the percentage of students passing the AIMS graduation tests in core subjects, graduation rates, dropout rates and the performance of key groups of students — like non-English speakers. The other half of the school’s grade will rely on the improvement in standardized scores for the bottom 25 percent of the student body.

The heavy emphasis on both raising scores on standardized tests and the performance of the bottom 25 percent could create difficulties for many districts. The same emphasis on continually raising the bar in the federal No Child Left Behind rating system this year forced the U.S. Department of Education to promise waivers when it became obvious the system would end up plastering a “failing” label on almost every school district in the country.

Moreover, the state’s new emphasis on improving the scores for the bottom 25 percent in the districts could eventually create big problems for high-performing districts where even the bottom 25 percent exceed the state average.

Moreover, district officials have been commenting on the state’s ratings for months, struggling to double check the data.

“We have seen the labels for our schools change three times since they first came out,” said O’Brien.

The state’s new labeling system is supposed to provide parents with good information on the performance of local schools and to eventually result in drastic reforms for schools that get “D’s” three years running.

O’Brien warned the board to brace itself for a possible shock, since the new rating system may not match up with the existing system.

Under the current system, the just-closed Frontier Elementary School and Payson High School both ranked as “highly performing.” Julia Randall Elementary School, Payson Elementary School and Rim Country Middle School both earned “performing plus” labels. The Pine-Strawberry Elementary School, the alternative Payson Center for Success High School and Gila County’s Payson Education Center had a “performing” label.

O’Brien warned the board to prepare for a major upheaval in the ratings. “Just because you’re an ‘excelling’ school this year doesn’t mean you’ll get an ‘A’ in the new ratings.”

“So it’s not necessarily, today you’re ‘excelling’ and tomorrow you’re an ‘A’ school,” mused board member Matt Van Camp.

“We’re going to get the old labels too,” said O’Brien — so a school might rank as “highly performing” on one set of standards but rate only a “C” on the other set. “Although the old labels are going to be phased out.”

Van Camp countered, “We should only be looking at the grades — I don’t want to get into a discussion of apples and oranges.”

“It’s the state’s data,” said O’Brien, “It’s not ours. But Superintendent Huppenthal felt this would be more meaningful.”

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