Feeling Schizo About Grades

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We can’t tell whether to be reassured or frightened by the state’s latest attempt to grade our schools. The whole thing makes us feel like a bipolar schizophrenic.

In principle — we love the idea of providing parents the information they need to hold school districts accountable. The old system relied on vague labels like “highly performing.” The new system goes right for the educational jugular — with grades from A to D slapped on every school in the state.

To our pleasant surprise — Payson High School went from “C” to “A.”

To our dismay, Rim Country Middle School remained stuck at a “D.”

But what do the numbers really mean?

Alas, less than they appear at the start.

The state’s new grading system focuses entirely on standardized test scores in core academic classes. The grades give extra weight to any progress made over time by students in the bottom 25 percent.

Now, that’s important. Standardized scores provide a valuable way to compare one school to another — and to track student progress over time. The gains made by students at PHS represent a real accomplishment, which apparently resulted from identifying struggling students and providing extra help. By the same token, the struggle of RCMS should focus the attention of the administration and the parents on how to help faltering students.

But does that mean that RCMS is “failing”? And that everything’s fine at the high school? Not necessarily.

Bear in mind, the ballyhooed state grades ignore sports, extracurricular activities, vocational programs, art, music, parent involvement, student ratings, college attendance rates, discipline problems, bullying, campus crime, teacher-parent communications and a host of other things critical to the quality of a school. Moreover, some schools suffered dramatic drops or gains under the new system, without a clear explanation for how a “highly performing” school becomes a basket case with a change in the rating system.

Fortunately, the state has at least backed away from the threat to take over “failing” schools if they get “Ds” for three years running.

That reduces the grades to a headline for politicians who want to claim that they’ve “reformed” the public schools, even as they vote for cuts year after year. The state Legislature has cut some $2 billion from Arizona’s schools in the past several years — so we’re not sure that it’s the schools that deserve the failing grade.

Still, we hope that the parents, teachers and administrators will learn the necessary lessons without panicking. After all, it’s a great system — except for the ways in which its awful.

We can all just get along

Payson and Star Valley have added another item to the tally of nice things that come from getting along.

Payson approved a contract with its once-wary neighbor to provide building inspection and planning services at an hourly rate.

The arrangement will bring in some much-needed spare change for Payson — and save Star Valley the daunting cost of staffing a building and planning department without much to do.

Star Valley has once again proven the value of avoiding taking on full-time paid staff, particularly with the cost of public employee health and retirement benefits — stretching its traffic-ticket-augmented revenue stream as far as possible. Star Valley has conserved its resources adroitly, with contracts with Payson and Gila County to provide basic services.

The win-win arrangement counts as additional happy fallout from Star Valley’s move a year ago to give up fighting the never-necessary water wars to seek a mutually beneficial working relationship with its neighbor. In that case, Star Valley concluded Payson’s Tower Well didn’t pose a grave threat to the town’s water supply after all.

Of course, one might also wonder whether it ever made sense for Star Valley to incorporate at all — given its frail tax base and its limited need for expensive municipal services.

As one surveys the rattletrap water companies, minimal planning services, struggling fire departments and fragmented planning that marks the many, mostly unincorporated communities of Rim Country — consolidation and coordination makes sense across the board.

Still, that’s probably all water down the well when it comes to Star Valley.

And we’re glad at least that Star Valley acted on the sound advice of Rodney King — and decided that we can all “just get along” after all.

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