Wednesday, November 8, 2017

State Grades Are All About the A's and F's

Posted By on Wed, Nov 8, 2017 at 10:25 AM

Here's what's important about the state's school grades.

If a school gets an A, it gets a sack full of results-based funding money—somewhere between $5,500 and $10,000 per teacher, depending on the number of low income students at the school. That's a big friggin' deal.

If a school gets an F, that means it failed as a school and is officially on notice. Different types of remedial actions can come into play. For a charter it can mean the school will be closed if it doesn't improve. For a district, it can mean the school will come under state control, though it's not clear what exactly that entails. That's a big deal too.

The other three grades, the B's, C's and D's, don't result in any direct changes for the school. No money, no threats from the state. Each school and district determines how it's going to deal with the B's, C's and D's, and public may raise or lower its estimation of the schools, but that's it.

So if a school moves in or out of an A or F designation, that really matters. If it moves up or down among the B, C and D grades, that's not nothing, but it's not a momentous change.

The state is going to make changes to the grading system, which means some school grades will change from what they are now. If you want to know what's happening, don't be distracted by some fancy new grading rubric. First, follow the money. The biggest battle will be over which schools get both an A and the money that comes with it. Then follow the charter closures. When someone like Republican Senator Sylvia Allen has a charter that received an F using the current grading system, something has to be done to make sure powerful people like her don't come under the gun. If the B, C and D grades get scrambled a bit in the process, that doesn't have much to do with the power struggles going on behind the scenes.

The Star's Tim Steller wrote an informative column a little while ago discussing how the grading system works, and how its attempts to be fair by making student growth a significant part of the grades resulted in complaints from some high rent schools, like BASIS, because they didn't get the A's they expected. Steller lays the situation out nicely, until he gets to what he calls a "workable solution" he has heard about for improving the system, a proposal for a "float weight" measure. At that point, he forgets to follow the money, so he loses sight of what's really going on.

The "float weight" proposal says the grades for schools with high test scores should emphasize their scores over growth, while grades for schools with lower test scores should emphasize their growth over scores. It looks fair and reasonable at first glance, but it's actually just a way to give A's to more high rent schools. Lots of schools with high test scores and low growth scores, schools that received B or even C grades in the first sort, will move into A territory — including, most probably, every BASIS charter—and that will put them in the results-based funding money. Other schools will have to be moved out to make room.

State A grades are a finite resource. They can only go to 17 percent of schools, give or take a few percentage points. That's because all A schools get results-based funding, and there's only so much money to go around—about $37.6 million. Since the per-student dollar amount is written into law, the state can only move schools into A territory by moving others out. It's a zero sum game. So the "float weight" measure is great for the high rent schools with top scores on the state test and lousy for schools that received an A under the original system but get booted out to make room for the "float weight" winners. That's why the CEO of BASIS thinks it's such a great idea.

I rarely agree with Robert Robb, the conservative columnist at the Republic, but I have to say, I'm with him when he says the state grading system is a turkey. But then he naively suggests it should be scrapped and replaced by a dual system: two separate lists, where one ranks schools by state test score and the other ranks schools by student growth. He didn't just forget to follow the money, he ignored it completely. Arizona can't scrap the state grading system so long as it has a law saying all schools with A grades get results-based funding.

When the revised school grades come out, probably in January, ignore the bright, shiny object, the fancy new scoring rules. They're a distraction. Just watch for shifts in schools getting the coveted A's and the dreaded F's.

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