The chair of the Arizona Senate Education Committee felt the harshness of the state’s new school accountability system this week.
The school that Republican Sen. Sylvia Allen co-founded, a charter school in Snowflake called the George Washington Academy, received an F in the ratings, released October 9 by the Arizona Board of Education.
For Allen, the fact that a school her grandchildren now attend, where she works to create teachings about character traits like honesty and patriotism, could fail under the new system shows the A-F accountability program needs to be adjusted.
But it’s not just Allen who found something to hate when the grades were released – the A-F grades have been roundly criticized from all parts of the education advocacy spectrum. Nearly everyone has found something to hate in the grades.
The Arizona Legislature approved a law in 2016 that directed the state board to create new accountability measures for its statewide school ratings system, dubbed the A-F School Accountability Plan. The board finished a methodology in April and began crunching the numbers, though the data released October 9 still was not a complete database of the grades, and the board called the results “preliminary.”
But the database still shocked many, despite what was known to be the case before the ratings were publicly released: There are far fewer A grades than under the previous system, and many schools, particularly heavyweight charter brands, were shocked to see they didn’t achieve the highest marks.
So far, 258 schools, or about 15 percent, have earned an A under the new grading system, compared to more than 500 schools that got an A under the previous system. The bulk of schools got Bs and Cs this time. Thirty-five schools failed.
But 170 schools are still listed as “under review” in the board’s database, meaning the numbers for each grade will likely change.
The board itself has also recognized its work isn’t done. The board recently announced a series of open houses to gather public input about potential changes to the grades and an advisory committee designed to look at ways to alter the grading system.
The board would not answer questions from the Arizona Capitol Times about what changes should be made to the system, if the grades are a valuable way to measure schools, who is primarily responsible for the system succeeding and more. Instead, board spokesman Catcher Baden said the board will be addressing these questions at a meeting on October 23.
For schools that received low marks, though, the public damage may have already been done. The grades are intended to inform parents on their children’s schools and hold schools accountable.
“These letters, A-F, are very powerful in the education setting, and parents aren’t going to understand why schools are coming out with low letter grades,” said Joe Thomas, the head of the Arizona Education Association, the teachers union.
The state’s highest elected official also wants to see changes in the grading system. Gov. Doug Ducey’s spokesman, Daniel Scarpinato, said Ducey thinks a lot more work needs to be done to make sure schools are accurately assessed and that parents know what the grades mean.
“This is a public policy shift, so we need to make sure we get the details right,” Scarpinato said.
And this time around, there’s money on the line for some schools with regard to the grading system. Next year, the school grades will decide if schools qualify for extra funding under Ducey’s results-based funding plan, which financially rewards high-performing schools.
Under the new grading system, K-8 schools will be graded based on student proficiency (weighted at 30 percent) and student growth (50 percent), both of which are judged on scores students received on AzMERIT, the statewide achievement tests. The formula also includes English Language Learners’ growth and proficiency (10 percent) and acceleration and readiness measures (10 percent).
At the high school level, 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).
For Thomas, the formula’s emphasis on standardized test scores, particularly at the K-8 level, means low-income schools are less likely to get high marks since test performance and income are strongly correlated.
There should be a wider range of measures taken to assess a school’s success, he said, like the number of counselors accessible to students or the available Advanced Placement course offerings.
Allen and Thomas, not typically allies at the Legislature, seem to agree on this point.
Allen, an advocate of school choice, said there needs to be a way to capture the uniqueness of the variety of school offerings in the state instead of primarily looking at test results.
If the state wants to maintain school choice and allow parents to pick schools that best reflect their values, there should be a “menu of assessments” schools can choose to be judged on, she said.
It wasn’t just the scores for George Washington – which says on its website that it aims to educate kids in a “brain-compatible manner” – that weren’t justified, she said, but many of the district and charters that she has visited in her area and across the state. Beaver Creek School in Yavapai County, for instance, focuses on hands-on methods, including raising chickens and taking kids to a creek for instruction, she noted.
“They were ranked a C. How could you rank them a C? That’s the kind of school I just love,” she said.
While some districts and education advocacy groups have long lamented the role the AzMERIT and A-F grading system play, charter schools are now joining the chorus of critics questioning the grades.
In a message to parents last week, Peter Bezanson, the CEO of BASIS schools, routinely the poster child for charter schools in Arizona, questioned the new grading system and said it would not accurately reflect BASIS’ successes.
The scores place more emphasis on students’ growth than their overall proficiency, which means high-performing schools with smaller margins for growth get dinged, he said.
He assured parents that nothing will change at BASIS campuses and “your children will still attend one of the highest-performing schools in the entire world.”
Many of the BASIS schools show as “under review” in the state’s database, though Bezanson told the Capitol Times the schools didn’t appeal the grades. Rather, the state is still figuring out how to assess them because they don’t fall under a typical K-8 or 9-12 configuration, he said.
That’s another flaw with the data released by the board – it makes no distinction between schools that are “under review” because they appealed their grades or those still being reviewed by the state.
Several of the schools in the Great Hearts Academies network also show as “under review,” though the charter operator has only appealed one school’s grade, its chief innovation officer, Erik Twist, said in an email.
Twist said that any ranking system should reflect the quality of a school, but it’s “glaringly apparent” the formula as it stands today does not do that.
For example, Twist said, a Great Hearts site in Glendale scored well above the top 10 percent in the state on AzMERIT in the past year, but the formula gave the school a C.
“This is absurd! Any school that has proficient and highly proficient students and keeps them at that level year over year, as our Glendale school does, should be recognized as an A school,” he said.
The charters publicly criticizing the system, coupled with the discontent overall on the scores and the board’s rollout of them, will likely pull weight at the Capitol for changes to the grading methodology.
Thomas of the AEA said the problems could be ironed out in short order if all the stakeholders, brought together by the Legislature, got into a room and discussed the proper way to assess students. And it’s vital that the grading system get fixed soon, he said.
“We have to see this moment as a moment of correction. It is absolutely broken,” he said.
Indeed, the myriad issues and complaints people have brought up with the A-F system mean the Legislature will have to dive back into the issue and try to make it right, Allen said. She wants to hold a hearing and listen to what all stakeholders have to say, then come up with a better path.
“I think we have not hit it right. I think it’s flawed. My goal was to make it to where every school would have the possibility of becoming an A school,” she said, adding that the new system doesn’t do that.
The board needs to “go back to the drawing table” and figure out a way to measure and analyze metrics that parents and schools care about in a way that allows for the uniqueness of schools, she said. And she questioned whether any A-F system would really be able to do that.