Get the basics on Arizona’s measurements of success.

About 15 percent of this year’s new Arizona school letter grades remain “under review” as some schools have questioned the data the state used to calculate the rankings.

The Arizona State Board of Education released “preliminary” grading data Monday that showed 276 out of 1,836 school sites had not yet been graded because their initial mark either was appealed by school officials or remained in question.

Among those with grades still undetermined: BASIS Schools Inc., which operates a chain of charter schools nationally recognized for high student achievement. Twenty of its letter grades are listed as under review.

The data publicly released by the board Monday was an update to the grading results the Arizona Department of Education provided to local media outlets Friday. 

The latest data showed 258 elementary and high schools earned an “A” grade. Another 532 schools earned a “B,” 472 schools were ranked “C,” 165 got a “D,” and 35 received an “F,” the lowest grade.

Of those with grade rankings listed “under review,” 113 are district schools and 163 are charter schools. 

The new grading system attempted to address a longstanding criticism that high student poverty correlated with low grades by emphasizing test-score improvement over time. In doing so, some critics say, the board could have affected the scores of student schools whose test scores were consistently high.

The State Board of Education, which has spent more than a year overhauling the way Arizona holds its public schools accountable, had planned to finalize letter grades for this school year Monday.

But the state is still trying to figure out how to fairly calculate grades for schools that do not fit under the two grading rubrics it created for grades K-8 and 9-12, Tim Carter, president of the State Board of Education, said Monday. 

Several schools in the past week have also appealed their grades to the state, Carter said, because they are “basically questioning the data.”

Carter said the state board is carefully reviewing schools’ appeals over the integrity of the data because “this is a more complicated system that has more levers than we’ve ever had before.”

Adding more complexity to the issue, the state board said in a memo sent to school superintendents Friday that it will gather public input through early November “for potential revisions to final letter grades for school year 2016-2017 and in upcoming school years.”

Carter said he was unsure of when the state will finish grading all public schools. He also said: “I believe that a significant majority of grades released (Monday) will end up being the final grade.”

But “at least for a group of (schools), we need to get to the bottom of whose data is accurate, and how it is being used, and we will do that as quickly as we possibly can,” Carter said.

Criticism over the current grading system

Arizona’s new grading system ranks the quality of public schools on an A-F scale and has strong implications on schools because parents in the past have used the grades to help determine where to enroll their children.

Schools that repeatedly earn failing marks are subject to state oversight, or closure if they are charter schools.

Several educators and school leaders have criticized the new grading system for various reasons.

Some have said the new system has become too complicated to serve one of its main purposes: to help teachers and principals improve student instruction.

Others, such as state schools chief Diane Douglas, have said the state needs to move away entirely from ranking systems that rely almost exclusively on standardized test results and include a “dashboard” of indicators. Ninety percent of the grade for Arizona elementary schools is tied to AzMERIT results.

DATABASE: Search for your school’s AzMERIT scores

The state board tweaked the new grading system in an attempt to rectify a longstanding criticism that high student poverty correlated with low grades.

One of those tweaks included more emphasis on how students improve on AzMERIT over time. The grading system also calculates that student growth two separate ways.

Peter Bezanson, CEO of BASIS.ed, said the current system does not fairly assess elementary schools that perform well because of how the state calculates student growth on AzMERIT.

Arizona Basis schools had 20 out of 27 letter grades listed as “under review” as of Monday. Of its remaining seven schools, three earned an “A” and four received a “B.”

“Simply put, the formula does not work to measure academic quality at schools that have students who have reached high levels of proficiency,” Bezanson said.

In the Kyrene School District, 11 out of 25 schools received an “A” grade. Eight earned a “B,” two got a “C,” and four remained “under review.”

Jan Vesely, Kyrene’s superintendent, said she’s met with principals and teachers to help them make sense of how their school earned their grade but believes the grades are “not a true reflection of the quality of schools.”

“We are all about accountability,” Vesely said. “We value it and want data and info that’s useful and informs teaching. That’s what schools want, and that’s what teachers want.

“This letter-grade system does not do that. It’s simple as that.”


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