School Grade: Trying To Spot The Peanut

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The state has once again graded every school in Arizona. Alas, there’s less to these grades than meets the eye.

The letter-grade rankings offered mostly good news for Payson schools — and mixed results for other districts in Rim Country.

The best news lay in Rim Country Middle School’s B — compared to the D rating for each of the previous two years.

Julia Randall Elementary School also moved up a notch — from C to B.

Unfortunately, Payson High School dropped from an A to a just-barely B.

Meanwhile, the tiny Pine-Strawberry and Tonto Basin districts both got Cs.

We dutifully reported the results in today’s Roundup — and will provide more detail on Friday.

Still, we feel a bit hornswoggled — wary as a mark with his bet down at the carnival watching the smooth-talking huckster shuffle three cups and a hidden peanut.

The state continues to put far too much emphasis on the results of standardized tests in a handful of core academic subjects. The state’s formula gives extra weight to schools whose students boost their average scores from one year to the next. Moreover, the state formula double-counts gains made by students in the bottom 25 percent.

State lawmakers and Gov. Jan Brewer say they want to hold the schools accountable for student learning. Therefore, they want to link both teacher job security and school funding to this still experimental, fragmentary rating system.

We think student AIMS scores do offer valuable information. They help identify students who need extra help, provide a tracking tool and offer a way to test whether the curriculum provides the irreducible minimum when it comes to core academic skills.

Still, the AIMS test doesn’t come close to measuring the quality of a school and its role in a community.

Now, granted: The state’s formula does take into account a few additional factors, like graduation rates and drop-out rates — plus the number of English Language Learners.

But the rankings leave out crucial information — and therefore provide a limited, lopsided view of any school.

For instance, the rating system completely ignores whether schools offer the top students what they need. Moreover, the ratings don’t include things like the number of Advanced Placement tests, college acceptance rates, vocational education programs, the quality of arts classes, student participation in extracurricular activities, parent involvement, teacher qualifications, staff turnover rates, community involvement, discipline, scholarship award rates, average class sizes or administrative overhead. Even worse, the ratings don’t adequately correct for student backgrounds and demographics. That badly handicaps rural districts like Payson where 70 percent of the students qualify for free and reduce lunch based on family income.

Instead, the whole grade comes down to how the weakest students perform on a constantly evolving, soon-to-be-discarded set of standardized tests.

So take the state ratings with a big dose of table salt and common sense.

Admittedly, we put the grades on the front page. But that’s just because we believe parents, teachers and administrators need all the help they can get giving our kids what they need.

Even so: When we squint at the numbers — they start to shimmy. We’re watching the shuffle of the cups as close as we can — but we can’t escape the sinking feeling that there’s no peanut there at all.

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