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State Board of Education will reconsider new school grading system

Tim Carter, president of the State Board of Education, explains the apparent problems Monday in the new grading system for schools. Listening is Diane Douglas, the superintendent of public instruction, who also serves on the board. (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

Tim Carter, president of the State Board of Education, explains the apparent problems Monday in the new grading system for schools. Listening is Diane Douglas, the superintendent of public instruction, who also serves on the board. (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

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

The unanimous vote means that some schools which 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 means 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 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.

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 grading plan may not have produced the desired results.

Board member Patricia Welborn said an analysis she did shows that among schools where 70 percent or more of students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, fewer than 5 percent earned an A grade. Conversely, a quarter were rated D or F.

At the other extreme, she said, more than 54 percent of schools with fewer than 30 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches earned an A; 90 percent were rated A or B.

And there were no schools earning an F.

“I’m very concerned that one of the fundamental rules that we intended not to happen has happened,” she told her colleagues. She wants a special Technical Assistance Committee being formed to look at the results to take a closer look to find out why that happened.

“Is there something we can tweak in our calculation that would remove this influence?” she continued. “I’m really concerned that we have too few high-poverty schools that are represented in the top areas.”

And then there are problems with schools that the system wasn’t designed to handle.

In essence, the grading is based on one set of standards for K-8 schools and another for 9-12.

But a tearful Mary Jo Mulligan, principal of the Thunderbolt Middle School in Lake Havasu City, said the decision to squeeze her school of 900 seventh and eighth graders into that system resulted in it getting an F, the only one in the county. Before this, she told board members, it had never been rated less than a B.

“I’m not here to make excuses,” she said.

But Mulligan detailed the things she believes a grading system should take into account that apparently didn’t matter, ranging from a high attendance rate and high school safety to eight exploratory classes that lead to high school career and technical education pathways as well as advanced classes in English, science and algebra.

And she said her seventh graders met the state average test scores in English language arts and exceeded those scores in math.

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.

Gubernatorial press aide Daniel Scarpinato said his boss wants to make sure the money is going where it was designed — and that the final grading system approved by the board does that.

“Some of his priorities are that it’s something that certainly takes into account the very different nature of some schools and that we find a way to objectively identify which schools are doing well and which ones need improvement,” he said.

And Scarpinato said the findings linking grades to poverty underline why “getting the formula right” is important.

“A school that may be dealing with a unique population, a unique issue, might have very high poverty issues, that the model is taking that into account so that we can truly understand what’s happening there,” he said.

But Scarpinato said his boss is having no second thoughts about providing financial incentives to high-performing schools — assuming the formula truly identifies them — because the funds can be used for everything from bonuses for teachers to helping a charter school expand to accommodate more children.

Charter schools have their own 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.

Sigmund blames much of that on the new grading formula putting more emphasis on improvement than academic achievement. The result, she said, is schools whose students already are performing at maximum levels are penalized because they don’t get points for improvement.

Carter said that issue of grading schools with “non-traditional grade configurations” goes beyond the fact that there are middle schools that do not fit the grading system. Carter said he has seen, for example, districts with K-5 elementary schools and high schools with students in grades 6-12.

There’s even one with all 12 grades in a single school. All that, Carter said, is within the legitimate power of local school boards.

Then there’s the question of data, specifically schools claiming one set of numbers and a different set being used by the Department of Education to compute grades.

“I’m not pointing fingers anyplace,” Carter said. “I don’t think that does us any good.”

But he said those numbers, including things like graduation rates, are important because they can make a significant difference in the grade a school gets.

A related issue, he said, is how those numbers were put into the grading system.

“If there are coding issues and they’re widespread, that is something we’re going to have to deal with,” he said.

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