Just Thinking

What’s In a School Grade? More Than Meets the Eye

by Richard Gilman

The second annual grading of schools is complete.  Unfortunately the lesson it teaches is incomplete.

This Legislature-mandated exercise, otherwise known as the A-F Letter Grade System, highlights districts and schools around the state that are making incremental improvement in education. And it continues to put the ducks in a row for the state Board of Education to move in on the worst-performing districts and schools.

But the grades issued by the state last month reveal a telling pattern.

For instance, all six elementary schools in very affluent, very white Cave Creek received A’s. Good for them. Meanwhile, the 17 schools of the Roosevelt Elementary District, which serves the disadvantaged, minority neighborhoods south of downtown Phoenix, were shut out. Not one “A.” The district managed two B’s. Otherwise it was all C’s and even D’s.

Cave Creek and Roosevelt may be at the extremes, but they are not isolated examples. The schools in districts that serve well-off neighborhoods routinely get A’s mixed in with some B’s. Meanwhile, schools in districts that serve poor neighborhoods get an occasional A, a few B’s, but lots of C’s and some D’s. Bigger districts that cover more diverse neighborhoods, such as Mesa and Amphitheater down in Tucson, have schools at both extremes.

Every now and then an impoverished school – and in two or three cases, an entire district – heroically rises above its circumstances. Conversely, some rich schools slip below expectations. But in my sampling of 100 schools, widely divergent exceptions were rare.  Santa Cruz Unified School District beats the odds . . . well, not entirely.

The Pattern Can’t Be All Attributable to Effort — or Lack Thereof

The overall pattern is so pervasive that it can’t be put off to differences in effort by educators. Surely the best of the well-off schools work hard to merit A’s rather than B’s. At the same time, it would be foolish to suppose that everyone toiling away in impoverished schools works less hard, or less adeptly.

As much as anything, the report card is simply a new way of showcasing an old problem. The evidence is rampant that students who are coping with socio-economic difficulties, non-supportive home environments, and language barriers struggle more in the classroom. The grades being handed down to schools are as much or more a commentary on the circumstances outside their walls as they are about the education inside.

As with schools, the performance of school districts and states – Arizona included – is highly dependent on the number of these students they’re trying to educate. It’s one of the reasons we rank 42nd in the land, based on a composite of scores of the math and reading tests given nationally to 4th and 8th graders.

The affected schools do a lot of heavy lifting under very harsh light. Considering the disadvantages, a “B” for any of them should stand as a heroic accomplishment. By comparison, better-off schools have it made in the shade. For them, a “B” should be treated as a misdemeanor. And yet all are graded on the same curve.

It’s pointless for Cave Creek schools to compete with Roosevelt schools, and disheartening for Roosevelt to compete with Cave Creek. Lumping them all together actually does a disservice to both. What’s more, it doesn’t contribute all that it could to the ultimate goal of improving the overall quality of education.

A Proposal To Make Grades More Meaningful

If we’re going to hand out grades, let’s make the exercise more meaningful and useful. Let’s directly compare schools of like circumstances.

Here’s a modest proposal. The state statute that mandates the grade system creates separate categories only for small and alternative schools. That categorization doesn’t get at the distinction begging to be made. Before the state hands out grades again, the Legislature should amend the law to divide all schools by their socio-economic characteristics.

  • Group I would be made up of schools with high percentages of minority and disadvantaged students. The proxy for this, while not perfect, could be those schools with two-thirds or more minority students.
  • Group II would be the in-between schools, those with between one-third and two-thirds minority students.
  • Group III would be the well-off, white schools. The proxy for this would be enrollments that are less than one-third minority.

The grading standards would remain the same. The best schools in each group would get A’s; the worst would get D’s. (The few A’s in Group I could be called “I-A’s”, the many in Group III would be “III-A’s”, and so forth.) The differences between the groups – which will be easy to spot – should begin to suggest solutions that are tailored to each.

The targeting should further sharpen the Group III schools. Woe to those now skating by with B’s. Beneath all the III-A’s, no longer hidden among the lower grades funneled off to the other groups, III-B won’t be a comfortable place. Talk about accountability!

Conversely, the scarcity of I-A’s will call more direct attention to the plight of the Group I schools. The point here is not sympathy, or appeasement. It’s awareness.

Their situation is not going to be fixed by grades, or sanctions, or even – as the now statute provides – by white knights riding in to save the day. Fine as far as it goes, but nothing will really improve until we step outside the box to provide sufficient educational resources for their students.

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