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School letter grades face revamp amid criticism

Posted On: 2017-11-02 10:16 AM
From White Mountain Independent...


By Michael Johnson The Independent

SHOW LOW — Facing a barrage of questions and criticism, the State Board of Education voted Oct. 23 to take another look at its new system for grading schools.

The A through F grades, officially released to schools Oct. 9, ran the gamut among schools in the White Mountains.

The letter grades used are as follows: A – Excellent; B — Highly Performing; C – Performing; D — Minimally Performing; and F – Failing.

For example, among K-8 schools in Apache County, Alpine Elementary and St. Johns Middle School each earned A's; Vernon Elementary was given a B; Concho Elementary, Round Valley Elementary and Middle schools earned C's; and McNary Elementary scored an F.

In Navajo County, Capps Elementary in Heber/Overgaard, as well as Snowflake Junior High and Taylor Intermediate each earned A's; Nikolaus Homestead in Show Low and Snowflake Intermediate each charted B's; Blue Ridge Junior High, Mogollon Junior High and Show Low Junior High scored C's; Blue Ridge Middle School, Linden Elementary and Sequoia Village School scored D's; and Whiteriver Elementary and George Washington Academy in Snowflake each scored an F. Whipple Ranch Elementary in Show Low was not rated because it did not fit into the K-8 standard.

Among high schools in Apache County, St. Johns scored an A and Round Valley was given a C.

In Navajo County, Snowflake High earned an A; Mogollon High scored a B; Blue Ridge and Show Low high schools were given a C; and Alchesay High School in Whiteriver is currently under review, having at first been given an F.

"Of course, we are concerned with school accountability. However, we are more focused on important student outcomes," said Blue Ridge Unified School District Superintendent Michael Wright. "State labels do not accurately reflect the good work taking place every day within our schools."

The grades, some White Mountain school administrators say, do not take into account what they called "the entire school experience."

"If you added into the label our performing arts, our extracurricular offerings and activities, our climate and culture, and all these other things that make a great school system, I think we would be an A," Show Low Superintendent Shad Housely said. "If you just pull out one segment and say, ‘We're just going to look at academic achievement,' then maybe these (grades) are reflective of that, to a point."

Charter schools have their own set of concerns.

Eileen Sigmund, president of the Arizona Charter School Association, told board members more than half those schools didn't get a grade, some of that because of their own non-traditional grade configurations. And those that did, she said, ended up with "significantly different'' scores than last year.

In Navajo County, George Washington Academy and Sequoia Village School, each received and F and D preliminary grades, respectively.

"Edkey Inc. is very proud of all our students and staff. While this system is a good measurement of our academic progress, it does not measure and value culture and climate and the countless hours our dedicated staff invest in the education of our children," Mark Plitzuweit, president and chief executive officer of Edkey Inc./Sequoia Schools, wrote on George Washington Academy's website. "We had schools that received grades all across the spectrum and we will continue to work closely with the Department of Education and the State Board for Charter Schools to maintain or improve our student outcomes. We are proud of all of our accomplishments."

More to the point, Show Low Superintendent Shad Housely wants to know how the district should proceed given the preliminary nature of the grades.

"We have the labels," he said. "Do we hang our heads and say, ‘We can't do anything'? How do we respond to this? My philosophy has always been, ‘The ship has sailed.' I can't argue whether or not we have an A-F label. Is it fair and equal? It's been spoken. The State Board of Education has said, ‘Here's the formula. Now you have to learn to operate inside that formula.' I'll continue to advocate for schools so that it's fair and equitable. How does my team navigate those waters so that we can improve student achievement?

"Ultimately, this is a reflection of student achievement. That's it."

In essence, the grading is based on one set of standards for K-8 schools and another for 9-12. Schools earn a letter grade based on a range of metrics that include:

• Proficiency in English Language Arts, mathematics and science.

• Growth in English Language Arts and mathematics.

• Proficiency and growth of English language learners.

• High school graduation rate.

• Acceleration and readiness measures, consisting of several items including reduction of chronic absenteeism and the improved growth of subgroups.

• College and career readiness indicators, including minimum thresholds on ACT/SAT, ASVAB, AP Tests, earning CTE industry credentials, certificates, or licenses.

Federal law dictates that school performance be measured annually and state law requires schools to do so using an A-F letter grade system. The Arizona State Board of Education was charged with developing a new system to comply with those federal and state requirements.

The Oct. 23 unanimous vote by the state BOE means that some schools that found themselves with preliminary grades of D and F could move up. That's important because parents use these grades to make decisions about where to send their children to school.

It could also mean more A grades. That, in turn, has financial implications with those schools eligible for additional state dollars.

But a revamp may not create all positive results, with some schools potentially finding out that they are not performing as well — at least by state standards — as they had initially been told.

The state BOE's move came amid questions about whether the data used to give out grades ranging from A to F is accurate. There also were issues raised about whether information was properly coded.

"We are appealing the state (D) label assigned to our elementary school on the basis of miscalculations, owing to missing data," Wright said. "The (Blue Ridge) junior high and high school letter grades of (C) are consistent with the state's scoring criteria."

But many of the problems appear to be associated with the board's decision on how much weight to give student improvement versus actual achievement.

That was inserted in a bid to ensure that lower-performing schools in high poverty areas had a chance to get high grades because their students were improving. But officials from some higher performing schools said that's not fair to them because their students already were scoring at the peak and therefore have nowhere to go — and no way to earn improvement points.

What may be worse is that the grading plan may not have produced the desired results.

But in Blue Ridge's case, Wright said the grades don't reflect the education students receive at his school district.

"Our graduates have attended some of our nation's most prestigious universities and military academies. This year's graduating class included a National Merit Scholar," he said. "Members of the class of 2017 will be attending well-renowned colleges and universities such as Dartmouth, Notre Dame, Brigham Young University, as well as many other fine institutions.

"I am proud of our teachers. They are outstanding professionals and quality individuals."

Tim Carter, president of the state board, said the complaints are in many ways not a surprise.

"All of us knew going in that with a new grading system, based on all you've heard today, that issues were going to arise,'' he told his colleagues. Carter said that's part of the reason that the grades that were made public earlier this month were determined to be preliminary, with the potential they can be changed.

The problems with the grading system are being monitored by aides to Gov. Doug Ducey.

It was Ducey who put $38 million into the budget for this year to be divided up among high-performing schools.

This year it was parceled out based on scores on the AzMERIT standardized tests. But the plan for next year is to use those grades.

"As far as academic achievement is concerned, I'm not too concerned about these labels," Housely said while recounting numerous moves SLUSD has taken to boost student learning outcomes, such as a new curricula framework and changes in the school schedule to ensure the district is meeting the academic hours required by the state. "I don't think they reflect where we are now and where we're going."

Howard Fischer of Capitol Media Services contributed to this story. Reach the editor at mjohnson@wmicentral.com

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