The state Board of Education is poised next Monday to adopt a formula for letter-grading schools that some members question – and that Kyrene School District officials are trying to derail.
While the board is scheduled to vote Sept. 25 on the system, Kyrene administrators have been rallying other districts to pressure it into delaying a final vote so it can revise a formula they say penalizes high-performing schools and students.
During a Sept. 6 study session, five of the 11 board members expressed reservations about the formula, which critics call unfair and so complicated that it will confuse students, teachers, administrators and parents.
But even as he too expressed reservations about the formula, board President Tim Carter announced the board will still vote on adopting the formula next Monday.
“I agree with almost everything I’ve heard,” said Carter, the Yavapai County superintendent of schools. “I think we have moved to a point in time where even though my personal view is it might be advantageous to move in a different direction, I don’t believe we have the luxury of doing that this year.”
A study session is scheduled for Friday, Sept. 22, but it is unclear if any significant changes to the formula will be made.
Appearing with Kyrene Superintendent Jan Vesely at the Sept. 6 meeting, Susie Ostmeyer, the district’s chief information and accountability officer, detailed the problems created by the “misleading” formula, telling the board:
“What is difficult to summarize eloquently is the unintended consequence of creating a model that is so complex that students, teachers and communities cannot use it to shape their understanding of results.”
At issue is the formula that makes schools’ letter grades dependent on more than just a standardized test and adds various categories to measure students’ proficiency and performance growth.
Those categories are weighted and include measures such as a school’s overall poverty level and even how long a student has been at a particular school.
The formula also measures a student’s proficiency against other students rather than base it on their individual performance.
In the long run, Vesely said, the practical impact is that high-performing schools will be penalized and students’ strengths and weaknesses will be obscured.
“Students, teachers and parents get no actionable information about areas of strength and weakness so that they can address those and develop learning plans to get kids on track,” she told the board, adding:
“There are too many levels of complication that, frankly, do not make the model better, fairer or more precise; they simple distort reality.”
Of particular concern to Vesely and several education board members is a measure of students’ “growth to target.”
“The growth points are four to five levels of distortion away from clearly communicating students’ academic gains and whether they are on track or not,” she said.
Becky Hill, vice president of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, tended to agree.
“I wish we could be clearer with them as to how this all works and what it is they need to do to improve the achievement of students,” she said.
Board member Calvin Baker, superintendent of the Vail School District near Tucson, complained, “No one was able to say here what are the specific buttons we have to push to get a better grade. It bothers me.”
“We’re sort of stuck at a crossroads,” Baker said, noting the decision on adopting letter grades was “made long ago, and now we’re seeing difficulties with that.”
Carter said rural administrators have begged for a grading system “that is easy to understand and easy to explain and will accurately measure where we are and that we as a team can sit down and make determinations on how we can be better.
“With this system, I don’t think we’re going to achieve that,” he conceded.
Despite those misgivings, Carter kept the board on track for a formal adoption vote, suggesting the governor and State Legislature are pressuring him to get the grading system in place for the current school year.
Baker said it was a mistake postpone refinements and let schools grapple with “a magic formula that does all the calculations we don’t understand.”
“The problem with going forward with a model that we aren’t truly comfortable is to have the mindset we can change that model next year...means the whole fruit basket gets upset again.”
He complained that if the board finds it necessary to revamp the grade formula next year, schools’ grades could shift dramatically, further confusing educators and parents alike.
“It’s a mess,” Baker said. “It would be better to make the right decision now even if it causes us some pain now.”
Board member Jared Taylor, a member of Gilbert Town Council, noted any grading system has flaws, and said, “I’m willing to meet more often to try and come up with a system that is going to be flawed but more useful.”
Taylor complained that “we have systemic issues,” but said:
“This is as good as we can get, given the way the table is set… I’m OK moving forward, but we need to deal with the bigger issues to get out of this cul de sac we’re in right now.”
The grading system is significant because it is used by many parents in choosing the schools they want their children to attend.
That, in turn, affects enrollment – and the amount of state reimbursement funds each school district and charter school receives.
Board member Michele Kaye, a charter school administrator for the Leona Group, said she saw no problem with adopting the formula next week and then revisiting it later.
“I don’t think we should throw out the baby with the bath water,” she said. “It is not a perfect model. If there is a way to look at the issue of high-proficiency schools being penalized, that’s worth taking a strong look at…I think we can work on refinements going forward.”