The Arizona Board of Education and the Arizona Department of Education are flouting state law by not immediately disclosing school performance ratings, though the schools themselves have access to their grades.
The new A-F grading system, years in the making, plays into some aspects of state funding, and it also affects parents’ choices on where to send their kids.
And next year, the school grades will decide if schools qualify for extra funding under Gov. Doug Ducey’s results-based funding plan, which financially rewards high-performing schools.
The Board of Education put out a press release in September saying that schools would receive their grades near the end of September, but the grades would be “embargoed” and kept confidential until October 9. An embargo is a media term for restricting the use of information until an agreed upon time.
The Arizona Capitol Times requested all schools’ letter grades from both the department and the board, but has been unable to access them at this point.
The board denied the records request, saying it does not keep or maintain a database of school letter grades.
Meanwhile, the department said it would not release the information yet because the board has made a determination that it won’t release them until October 9. The Board of Education had previously voted to embargo the grades during an appeals period.
But the whole idea of an “embargo” on public information doesn’t fly under public records laws, First Amendment attorney Dan Barr said.
Embargoes are typically used when someone is giving a speech or ahead of an event based on information expected to be released during that event, he said. But there’s nothing in public records laws that allows agencies or officials to put an embargo on public documents once they’ve been distributed, he said.
“Public bodies don’t get to say, I won’t comply with statutes today, but I will next week,” he said.
Some schools have already released their grades publicly after receiving public records requests. But replicating the full file of letter grades this way would not be practical for anyone interested in seeing how public schools fared overall.
The Tucson Unified School District, for example, released its grades October 3, which showed the district had more failing schools than high-ranking schools.
The state Department of Education is the custodian of the school letter grade records, department spokesman Dan Godzich said.
A complete file of schools is not yet complete, though schools themselves can log into a state system and access their grades, he said.
It’s unclear how each school would be able to see their grades if there’s not some sort of overall data they’re pulling from.
Godzich said the complete file of schools should be ready sometime next week, which coincides with the embargo date, and noted the complexity of changing to a new letter grade system.
He referred questions about how an embargo period complies with state statutes on public records back to the Board of Education, which also sidestepped the question.
Last week, board spokesman Catcher Baden said the schools will have an opportunity to appeal their grades before the embargo period ends.
“When the grades become available to the public on October 9, there will not be a letter grade displayed for schools that have appealed but instead, there will be a note indicating that the grade is under appeal,” Baden said.
Then, a subcommittee of the board will review appeals and make recommendations to the full board, he said.
In the board’s September press release, the board set the October 9 embargo date and told schools not to release their grades before it.
“In the event of the receipt of a public records request for the letter grades during the embargo period, schools should consult their legal counsel for guidance,” the release said.
During the embargo period, schools can appeal their letter grades “based on extreme circumstances that are outside of the school’s control (i.e. a tornado touched down near the school on the week of testing and negatively affected student performance),” according to the release.
Under the new grading system, K-8 schools will be graded based on student proficiency (weighted at 30 percent), student growth (50 percent), English Language Learners’ growth and proficiency (10 percent) and acceleration and readiness measures (10 percent).
For high schools, the grading system will consider student proficiency (30 percent), student growth (20 percent), ELL growth and proficiency (10 percent), graduation rates (20 percent), and college and career readiness (20 percent).
After this story published, a reporter from the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting attempted to inspect the school letter grade records, allowable under state statutes, at the Department of Education. The AZCIR reporter was forcibly removed from the department by a security guard.