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Arizona to change how it evaluates schools

by Kevin Kiley - Aug. 16, 2010 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic

A plan to switch how Arizona schools are evaluated by starting to use familiar letter grades is likely to give many schools report-card shock.
The aim of the change is to drive school improvement by making it easier to gauge exactly how well schools are doing. But a new way in which the evaluations will be figured is expected to produce more schools with low rankings.

As a result, the change isn't as simple as just converting the current labels such as "excelling," "highly performing" and "performing" to A, B and C.
"Not every 'excelling' school is going to be an 'A' school," said Robert Franciosi, deputy associate superintendent for research and evaluation, who oversees the Department of Education's school assessments.
Exactly what impact the change will have is yet to be seen and won't be known until the first round of letter-grade rankings come out after this school year.
The state has used the current labels since 2003 to evaluate public schools based on student performance on the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards test and student improvement from the year before.
The evaluation also weighs the number of students passing English-language-learners tests. At the high-school level, graduation and dropout rates are a factor, too.
Garthanne de Ocampo, principal of Emerson Elementary School in Phoenix, said the current labels connote a general idea of how well a school is doing whereas a letter grade might be somewhat ambiguous.
"There's a definition that comes with 'performing' that doesn't accompany a letter grade," she said.
Emerson was labeled "performing" last year, the third lowest of the state's six labels. That places the school in the lower half of all public schools.
De Ocampo said the label, while low compared with other schools, still indicates the school is meeting state expectations.
"We're proud of the fact that we're a performing school," she said. "We know we can do better, but looking at the data that accompanies the label is what's going to make us do better, not the label itself."
Supporters of the change, which was required under a state law signed in May, say the current labels paint too rosy of a picture and don't drive schools to improve. They say labels such as "performing" and "performing plus" are misleading. In the new system, these schools will likely receive C's.
Matthew Ladner, vice president of research at the Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank in Phoenix, said that schools with "performing" labels often have numerous students who don't make national standards.
The change "makes it so there's a clear incentive in place," said Ladner, who spoke in support of the law during legislative hearings. "No one is desperate to get out of a 'performing' label."
The current labels also might not be strict enough to accurately reflect national standards.
For the 2009-10 school year, only 5.3 percent of Arizona schools were ranked as underperforming or failing, the two lowest grades. But nearly 30 percent of Arizona's schools did not meet "adequate yearly progress" on national standards, according to the state Department of Education.
Arizona also has some of the lowest percentages in the country of students listed as "at or above basic" and "at or above proficient" on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a national examination that tests fourth- and eighth-graders' math and reading abilities.
"We're handing out performing labels like beads at a Mardi Gras float," Ladner said. "It's a cruel joke to play on kids. We call schools 'performing' despite the fact that a lot of these kids are nowhere close to where they need to be academically."
Making the grade
The new formula for creating the grades maintains the same components but adjusts how they are weighted.
Now, 30 percent of a school's grade is based on how all students improve from the prior year. The new system drops that percentage to 25 but also adds 25 percent based on the improvement of the lowest quarter of students.
Proponents say the emphasis on improvement by the lowest-performing students will drive educators to place a larger emphasis on those students.
While the law bases grades on "average" performance, the exact criteria for what qualifies a school for each letter grade will be determined by the state Department of Education. The department is still devising the criteria.
Several elements of the current labeling system will stay.
"Underperforming" schools are required to develop and implement an improvement plan. That will apply to schools making a D in the new system. The department will create an improvement plan for failing schools.
Following Florida
Several state lawmakers met with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush last year to discuss ways Arizona could implement educational reforms that Bush signed as governor in the late 1990s.
The labeling change is one of several measures lawmakers passed that are modeled after those reforms.
Since Bush's tenure, Florida has seen its national test scores improve and achievement gap between White and minority students shrink.
Proponents of the Arizona measure credit part of Florida's improvement to the labeling system.
Since Florida implemented letter grades in 1999, the state has seen an increase in the number of schools making A's. In the first four years of the program, the number of schools receiving A and B grades almost tripled.
But opponents of the change say the Florida labels were part of a larger educational overhaul - which included vouchers for preschool education and rewards for high-performing teachers - that does not accompany the Arizona law.
"We want to make sure that if we're doing some changes, we don't actually say, 'Let's be like Florida,' without really looking at some of the components that Florida did," said Jennifer Laredo, a lobbyist for the Arizona Education Association, during a legislative hearing in March.
Another law modeled on Florida's reforms will prevent students' promotion from third grade if they do not meet proficiency standards in reading. That law goes into effect for the 2013-14 school year.
Phasing out old labels
The old labels will be phased out over the next few years. Both the achievement terms and letter grades will be used for the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years. After that, only the letter grades will be used.
The change means more work for the accountability office of the Department of Education, which conducts the evaluations. In addition to doing federal evaluations, the office will have to do both the old and new evaluations for two years, as well as new evaluations for school districts, also required by the new law.
That office has not received additional funding and has had to lay employees off over the past few years. The office also is responsible for educating local administrators and teachers about what the changes mean.

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