Most public district schools in the Scottsdale area received high marks in the school letter grades report recently released by the Arizona State Board of Education.
The grades have become an easy way for parents to compare schools throughout the state since Arizona began using the system in 2011, though some educators caution against putting too much weight in the A-F system.
Schools in the Scottsdale Unified School District received 13 As, 7 Bs and 2 Cs from the state board.
Tavan Elementary School posted the most noticeable improvement, going from a C grade in 2017 to an A grade this year, earning high marks in the growth points category. Individual student growth year to year accounts for 50 percent of an elementary school’s grade.
Three high schools – Desert Mountain, Saguaro and Chaparral – improved from a B grade to an A. Arcadia High School improved from a C to a B.
Cave Creek Unified School District also performed well, with both Cactus Shadows High School and Sonoran Trails Middle School receiving A grades after posting B grades in 2017. Black Mountain Elementary School and Desert Sun Academy each earned B grades in 2018.
Paradise Valley Unified School District’s schools in Scottsdale received nine As, two Bs and a C. Desert Shadows Middle School and North Ranch Elementary School each improved from a B grade in 2017 to an A in 2018.
Grade system faulted
School letter grades are mandated by state and federal law in Arizona.
On the surface, the letter grades provide parents in Arizona an easy one-stop-shop to compare their local school against other schools throughout the Valley.
But Audrey Beardsley, professor at Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, cautioned parents against putting too much emphasis on AzMERIT test scores and school letter grades.
Proficiency on AzMERIT tests is one of five quantifiable factors that affect Arizona’s school letter grades.
“There is a rule of thumb on this – the farther away from the classroom they are, the worse (these assessments) get for (grading) classroom level achievement,” she said.
Schools also receive growth points for top students who continue to perform at a high level.
In an opinion piece in The Washington Post, David Berliner, a highly-decorated educational psychologist and researcher and regents’ professor emeritus at ASU, referred to Arizona’s A-F system as an “insulting and highly misleading educational policy.”
In the piece, Berliner wrote poverty, not teachers or curriculum, is the root of educational problems in America.
Beardsley said that parents choosing schools should look at a host of variables beyond letter grades, including disciplinary data, attendance records, school safety and per pupil expenditures.
The State Board of Education has also emphasized that school letter grades are just one metric that parents can use as they choose a school.
“The Board has always encouraged parents to consider A-F Letter Grades as one of many tools to use when selecting a school for their child, including school visits, talking to other parents, meeting the school leaders and teachers, extracurricular programs, etc.,” said Alicia Williams, Arizona Board of Education executive director.
Beardsley, who specializes in educational policy, measurement and research methods, said one issue is the significant relationship between test scores and a school’s demographics.
She said poorer schools tend to do worse on standardized tests than more affluent schools and that researchers can predict tests scores with a high degree of accuracy just by looking at a school’s demographics.
“There is a correlation between test scores and student demographics and risk variables,” she said. “The correlations are very strong to the point that we as statisticians can use those risk variables and predict 80 percent of the time how students will perform without them even the test taking place.”
In the Washington Post piece, Berliner wrote, “The grading of schools serves the real estate community quite well. But those grades tell the public nothing about the quality of teaching and caring in a particular school.”
Why grades reward growth
Williams said that the state board takes the correlation between test scores and school demographics seriously, which is why Arizona’s letter grades reward growth and not just achievement.
“The Board reviewed the correlation during the development of the A-F Accountability System and has taken steps to address it by increasing the weight of student growth on the test and including measures outside of the statewide assessment like completing a Career and Technical Education course, graduation rates, chronic absenteeism, obtaining an industry credential or certificate and more,” she said.
Beardsley served on a technical advisory committee for Arizona State Board of Education that was tasked with interpreting data and advising the board on A-F letter grades and other board policies.
Beardsley said that some committee members suggested that the board should take a more holistic approach to grading schools that looked at factors beyond test scores, including social services, safety and programs for specialized populations offered on campus.
However, the “state wanted to stick with the easy answer test score approach,” she said.
Beardsley suggested the board’s policies were influenced by ExcelinEd, the Jeb Bush-led nonprofit that has promoted the use of A-F school grading across the United States, mostly in Sunbelt states.
An out-of-state representative from ExcelinEd sat on the technical advisory committee with Beardsley.
Beardsley acknowledged that occasionally schools perform well on the test despite demographics that would indicate otherwise.
Several of those outliers occurred in Scottsdale, according to the most recent AzMERIT test results released by the state.
For example, Navajo Elementary, a Title 1 school, posted a percent passing score of just under 70 percent on the third grade English and Language Arts test. That percentage equaled or outperformed several more affluent schools in the district.
Hohokam Elementary School, another Title 1 school, posted a percent passing score of over 80 percent on the third grade math test, which also outperformed more affluent schools in the district.
However, Beardsley said it is important to look critically at what these schools did to promote higher scores in order to determine whether the scores were a one-time outlier or a genuine trend.
“We see outliers and want to celebrate them, but we also want to investigate how does this occur and do these outliers persist?” she said.
Beardsley pointed to several common conditions that result in temporary bumps in standardized test scores, including a turnover in administrators and/or teachers at a given school.
“There could be a new principal that shakes things up and has extreme consequences (based on test scores),” she said. “As soon as those statements are made, that is when it becomes high stakes testing.”
She said that can lead to skewed test scores, as teachers feel pressured to improve test scores and do things like teach from the previous year’s test.
“The more seriousness with which we approach the test, the more likely it is for artificial inflation,” she said. “That ensures (teachers) will do things, thinking they are doing them wisely but also things that may not be good for students, to keep their jobs.”
Not just students accountable
Beardsley said the risk in relying on standardized test scores to rank schools is that they are often skewed and it is difficult to get all students to take the tests seriously – meaning negative performance on an AzMERIT test is not always correlated with a lack of understanding of a given subject.
She said current federal education policy under the Every Student Succeeds Act puts the onus of accountability on administrators, schools and teachers – not on students.
That leaves teachers and schools scrambling to motivate students to prepare for a test that does not affect their grades and that they may or may not care about, she said.
“We do discuss if students take tests seriously at the high school level since there is no graduation requirement,” said Cynthia Bochna, SUSD director of Assessment & Accountability.
The State Legislature did make changes in legislation that has allowed the Board of Education to start a pilot program allowing some high schools to choose alternatives to AzMERIT to measure student performance, including ACT or SAT college entrance exam scores.
An SUSD district spokesperson said district leadership is discussing the possibility of using ACT scores in this way in the future. The district currently pays for all registered 11th-graders to take the ACT.
Because those scores are tied to college admissions, they provide a level of student accountability that AzMERIT does not.
Still, this type of accountability only applies to students who plan to attend a college or university that requires ACT or SAT test scores for acceptance.