In October, the Arizona State Board of Education released preliminary school grades for more than 1,800 education entities teaching Arizona’s future.
Of Scottsdale Unified School District’s 29 schools: 15 scored “A” grades; 10 scored “B” grades; and four scored “C” grades. There were no schools that scored a “D” or “F,” SUSD data shows.
The school letter grade system is the latest student-achievement indicator to receive an overhaul in recent years, as the AzMERIT — the test the new school letter grade model is most dependent upon — has been implemented as Arizona’s benchmark assessment in recent years.
The Arizona Board of Education released the preliminary school grades on Oct. 9, noting there were identified revisions to be made as the A-F grade system is different this year than past years.
The letter grades, coined the A-F Accountability System, is designed to empower schools to achieve and increase student success in Arizona, officials at the Board of Education contend, noting the system provides schools with feedback on areas of understanding and areas needing focus.
Scottsdale Unified School District Assistant Superintendent of Accountability and Instruction Dr. Anna McCauley says the new model retains many components of the original A-F model, and adds new metrics, formulas, weighting and letter grade descriptors.
Among the purposes for the new system, the SBE describes it as a way to hold schools accountable, and provides schools with quantitative feedback.
While the letter grades provide results for district administrators, principals, teachers, parents and students, it is only a portion of assessments and data SUSD is collecting, Dr. McCauley contends.
“What we’re going to do is not going to be contingent on the formula because what I’ve already told them they need to do is good-practice,” Dr. McCauley said in a Nov. 2 phone interview.
Dr. McCauley pointed to the upcoming ACT test for all high school juniors and the Aspire-ACT test for all eighth grade students as additional resources being used to seek improvement in the classrooms.
“Really just stepping it up across the board and continuing where we’re strong and reinforcing creating more rigor where it’s lacking,” Dr. McCauley noted of the district’s next steps after receiving their grades.
Developing the A-F Accountability System
Arizona’s Measurement of Educational Readiness to Inform Teaching, most commonly known as AzMERIT, replaced the former Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards, or AIMS tests, for most assessment areas except science.
The differences between the two tests include assessing Arizona academic standards vs, assessing college readiness standards, and not needing to pass the state test to be awarded a diploma.
Additionally, students used conventional pencil and paper to fill out a multiple choice answer sheet for the AIMS, while AzMERIT utilizes technology and multiple answering methods.
The school implementation of AzMERIT started in 2011 with kindergarten students, and incrementally continued until those kindergarten students enrolled in third grade in 2013.
Scottsdale Schools began using AzMERIT scores for assessment in 2015 following a grace period.
Implementation of A-F letter grades began in the 2010-11 school year, but due to the change from AIMS test to AzMERIT, letter grades have not been issued since 2014.
Through federal law, Arizona is required to measure school performance and is required by state law to do so through an A-F letter grade system, according to the Board of Education.
The new system relies less on the statewide assessment, the board contends, and utilizes a broader range of measures to obtain a more quantitative measurement of student and school wide achievement.
Quantitative data — such as test and graduation results — is what is measured in the A-F letter grade system, while qualitative data looks like awards earned and quality of programs.
Being charged with developing a new system to comply with state and federal requirements, the state board sought out a system that would measure the quality of a school and its effectiveness across a broader range of indicators.
The state board appointed a committee consisting of a range of stakeholders, sought public input and utilized expertise from the Arizona Department of Education and Accountability Advisory Group, according to its website.
Input was gathered through 17 public hearings across the state, and a survey that returned almost 1,700 responses, the website states.
The state board adopted the A-F School Accountability Plan on April 24. Schools received their preliminary grades at the end of September, and the information was released to the public in early October. Final grades are expected later this winter, Dr. McCauley said.
Following the release of grades, a Technical Advisory Committee comprised of data experts related to K-12 study achievement was created to review the plan, business rules and report, and identify any problematic issues found.
The committee is expected to present their findings at a Dec. 4 meeting.
Ultimately, the new system is built on a 100-point system. Schools are eligible for different total points — through areas such acceleration and readiness measures, student progress and growth — and their grade is determined on a cut-score of those points.
Kindergarten through eighth grade schools, and high schools each have their own grading system.
For young students, the old system’s grading rubric was based on: 50 percent proficiency for AIMS test and 50 percent growth between all students and growth of the lowest-performing students. The method was all measured by AIMS, Dr. McCauley says.
In the new rubric: 30 percent of the score is based on proficiency of the AzMERIT and AIMS science; 50 percent is student growth; 10 percent is English Language Learners’ growth and proficiency; and 10 percent is acceleration and readiness measures.
High schools are graded on similar weighted categories, and add graduation rate and college and career readiness.
The old system was: 35 percent proficiency rate on the AIMS tests; 15 percent on college and career readiness; and 50 percent measured growth of all students and growth of the lowest-performing students.
The new system is: 30 percent AzMERIT and AIMS proficiency; student growth is 20 percent; graduation rate is 20 percent; college and career readiness is 20 percent; and English Language Learners’ growth and proficiency is 10 percent.
At the local level
Scottsdale Unified School District’s 29 schools rated well above the state average, Dr. McCauley says, but notes that some grades may change following the final grade release this winter.
In an Oct. 17 Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board meeting, Dr. McCauley presented top district officials and a room-full of community members, the letter grades in 2014 compared to 2017.
In 2014 SUSD had:
- A grade: 19
- B grade: 7
- C grade: 3
- D grade: 1
In 2017 SUSD has:
- A grade: 15
- B grade: 10
- C grade: 4
Scottsdale has appealed one school grade, a “B” at Copper Ridge School, citing a substantive reason, Dr. McCauley said.
“They had a substantive reason, they had a grade level of students that were impacted by the illness of a teacher,” Dr. McCauley said.
“The students were aware of the situation and it is a very beloved teacher, so the thought is that effected them going into the test. They found out right before they took the test.”
Of SUSD’s five high schools, none received an “A” grade, which district officials say could be based on the new graduation rate indicator.
“That is true, our graduation rate did adversely affect a few of our schools,” Dr. McCauley said. “They did not get the full points for graduation rate.”
According to district officials, when students leave SUSD — whether to transfer to a local school or to an out-of-state school — if their movement isn’t recorded it will affect the school.
“Graduation rate is not calculated based on seniors who show up on Aug. 8, 2016,” Dr. McCauley explained during the Oct. 17 board meeting. “It is compiled based on a cohort, so it is a cohort of children — all of those students who arrived in ninth grade — but if they drop out, they remain on your accountability roles.
“That is why you could have, maybe at the beginning of the year, 300 seniors start and 290 graduate. It’s calculated as a cohort measure, not a single-year measure.”
Dr. McCauley said while some details of the accountability system are being ironed out, SUSD is using the initial information to point out what it takes to increase students proficiency and reduce excessive absences.
She says while the metrics of the system are good, there are some formulaic systems that need modification.
“There were ways in which schools could be advantaged or disadvantaged,” she explained during the Oct. 17 Governing Board meeting.
“I do believe the way some formulas were applied muddies the water, it could mislead what is being represented. I believe even if this was overhauled, we would maintain many of our ‘As’ and ‘Bs.’”
Governing Board member Kim Hartmann expressed her admiration for the job SUSD is doing.
“Our principals and teachers are doing an incredible job, this is a stellar performance,” she said.
“When it comes to reviewing and repealing and protesting — you know, the facts are the facts. This is what our state looks like, this is where we’re performing. I like to take data as a flashlight, not a hammer and shine a light on it, and continue to move to the next step of excellence.”
Dr. McCauley says she is advising administration to make sure students are prepared adequately and looking to grow offerings in career and technical education programs and honors courses.
“We will be administering the ACT to all juniors this year that will help us modify curriculum for this data,” she said. “Are we really preparing the kids? So curriculum will also be able to use that, and sites will be able to use it.”