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Why the A-F rating system for schools vexes policymakers


The issue vexing policymakers and the State Board of Education on the A to F school grade system is defining what one means by a “school.” The diverse education community, with its multiple delivery variables in unique learning communities, holds some dramatically different ideas of what is a school.

One might say that it is a physical structure. Some might say that a school is a collection of faculty. But today there are two competing and juxtaposed definitions that make a single formula so problematic when test scores are so heavily relied upon to determine grades.

The common view is that good schools are schools full of good students. Another view is that a good school is one that influences poor students to become good, and good students to become great. The actual mission of the school can vary by which of these views is embraced.

Roger Freeman

Roger Freeman

The schools full of great students who stay great achievers are a more common view because of one often asked question. “How can that be a good school if the kids still can’t read?” The notion that a school can be good, even though the students can’t read at the level set out in standards is confounding to many.

Recognizing the fact that Arizona leads the nation in child poverty at 24 percent provides some insight. Children start school at a dramatically wide range of readiness levels. Children of families or regions of the state with more supportive resources perform at levels that can compete with anywhere else in the US.

Children from families or regions with limited support have a much more difficult challenge to perform well on tests with very high standards. And a significant number of students come to school well below the ascribed standard level. It’s not that they can’t perform at a high level, but it is more challenging.

Test performance is especially problematic because the number one factor influencing student achievement on standardized tests is the resources of their families. It statistically explains about 60 percent of the score, while the people in the school can influence almost 30 percent of the score.

Some schools in Arizona take more struggling children as students than others. And these kids are a work in progress – they don’t get caught up after just a single year of schooling. People in those schools are asked to cover more ground than is statistically typical. It can be exhaustingly challenging work.

Making matters even more intractable for policymakers is that much of the student population in Arizona is essentially segregated into high and low resource groups, (whether by choice or by zip code) with a few differing variations in between.

An idea adopted in other systems is a measure of “floating” weights. This idea concedes the difficulty in co-measuring these two different populations without some mechanism in the plan that allows groups to be measured against the schools that are most like them. These plans are designed so that the weighting of measures “floats” toward the strengths of the schools depending on the make-up of the student population.

If we use test score measures, then they are divided into two categories: high scores and high growth in scores. It would be great to be in a school that had both, but schools wouldn’t need to be penalized if they were really strong in one or the other. Obviously we would not want schools that were low in both scores and growth.

Insisting that schools can’t be good if the kids still can’t read at the level demanded is a bias favoring the high score only school types. Making the grade for schools turns into a race to keep students enrolled from the families with the most resources. But if our goal is to improve all, not just some, of our high school graduates, then an A to F plan must recognize the hard work of schools moving struggling learners toward greater proficiency.

If we want a single rigid system based on high scores, then we should have a single rigid type of school that is integrated with proportionate types of families and students. Many students in such a system might still be left behind, and it is obviously not a realistic system.

However, designing a system that recognizes the differing strengths of these widely varied schools is possible – if we can just learn to appreciate the strengths of others.

Roger Freeman is superintendent of Littleton Elementary School District.


The views expressed in guest commentaries are those of the author and are not the views of the Arizona Capitol Times.

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