Arizona Board Of Education Expected To Vote On New School Grading System

By Carrie Jung
Published: Monday, April 24, 2017 - 8:11am
Updated: Monday, April 24, 2017 - 4:47pm

Arizona will soon adopt a new system to determine how well their public schools are performing. State officials have been considering several A-F models over the last few months. The Arizona State Board of Education is expected to make their final decision on which one to use Monday morning. 

The A-F school grading rubric is coming back after taking a two year hiatus. Officials put a temporary pause on the system after the state switched the standardized test it uses to AzMERIT.

The proposals were released publicly in early February and residents got their first chance to weigh in in a series of 17 public meetings held throughout the state in March.

"At the end of the day, there's a 100 point scale and every school's going to earn from 0 to 100 points," said Arizona State Board of Education member Calvin Baker while answering an audience question at the hearing in Tempe. 

Members of an advisory committee tasked with recommending the proposals the board should consider were also there to listen to community feedback. One of the biggest complaints? 

"This letter grading system shames poor schools and benefits wealthy schools," said Beth Lewis, a teacher at Arredondo Elementary in Tempe.

Lewis said the letter grades give schools a stigma which ultimately make it harder to improve. She argued a low grade can spur some parents and teachers to leave a school in search of greener pastures. 

"It doesn’t give you a holistic view of all of the wonderful clubs that are going on, the great arts education," Lewis said. "It all relies on two days of testing." 

She takes issue with how much weight the new system puts on the AzMERIT test.

How much is that? About 80 percent for K-8 schools under the model the advisory committee is recommending.

Here’s how a majority of those committee members are hoping to break that down: 30 percent of a school’s grade will be determined by student proficiency on AzMERIT. Another 50 percent will be determined by how much students improved on the test. Outisde of AzMERIT, 10 percent of the grade will come from the performance and growth that English language learners show on the state’s language proficiency test known as AZELLA. and the last 10 percent will be determined by other readiness factors.

"Kind of an underlying challenge has been the availability of data," said Dr. Paul Tighe, one of the 13 A-F advisory committee members and superintendent of the Saddle Mountain Unified School District near Tonopah. "So the interest, both from the state board and the Ad Hoc committee, was to move away from just having a single metric, in this case AzMERIT, as being the sole basis for letter grades." 

He explained the committee worked hard to find other factors, but they struggled to pin down any that could provide valid and reliable data across the state.

"Particularly being student based," Tighe said. "So when you put those parameters on, it’s suddenly difficult to come up with measurable things that can be included and that we already have data for." 

He added, they were able to diversify the grading rubric proposals a little more for high schools.

The committee will be sending a few options to the board of education, but under most of them, 40 percent of a school’s scores will be based on non test data like college and career readiness factors like how many students fill out FAFSA (Free Application For Federal Student Aid) forms for higher education and four year graduation rates. 

But let’s go back to teacher Beth Lewis’s point for a second.

Under the new system, would schools serving kids in high poverty areas be correlated with lower grades? Karol Schmidt, the director of the Arizona State Board of Education said no, because the new proposals place more weight on factors like improvement on AzMERIT than in years past. 

"So we can recognize the growth of students who are across proficiency bands from minimum all the way up and, in turn, weight those so we can reduce the correlation," Schmidt said. 

And Schmidt added this vote won’t be the end of the school grading discussion.  

"It’s something that we’ll study on an annual basis," she said. "As time goes by we’ll see new indicators that could be included in future years." 

After the State Board of Education votes, they’ll begin determining how the numerical scores actually break down into letter grades.

Schmidt estimates official school grades for the 2016-2017 school year will be released by early fall. 

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