School grades released

NAVAJO AND APACHE COUNTIES — The grades are out for the Arizona schools for the 2017-18 school year.

The latest effort by the state to grade schools has produced the usual winners and losers. Once again, schools with more educated, high-income families in places like Scottsdale and Paradise Valley piled up the ‘A’ ratings. Once again, schools with lots of low-income families, minority groups, single-parent homes and other challenges received lower rankings.

In Navajo and Apache counties, the biggest divide separated schools in the higher income areas of the White Mountains with the schools drawing from the reservations.

Still, here’s how the state average for each grade compared to the average grades received by Navajo and Apache county schools:

A grade; State 27 percent vs 19 percent

B grade: State 31 percent vs 30 percent

C grade: State 28 percent, vs 26 percent

D grade; State 11 percent vs 22 percent

F grade; State 3 percent vs 4 percent.

The latest state grades remain largely determined by student scores on a nationally-normed test. Overall, a worrisome number of students score well below the sought-after “proficient” or “highly proficient” rank on the AzMERIT test on which the scores are largely based. The state halted grading schools in 2015 because it had required them to adopt the AzMERIT test – a nationally-normed testing system that replaced the old AIMS graduation tests.

The districts have a few weeks to appeal their grades, so the state has so far released only overall scores – without the revealing detail on grade level testing, absenteeism, discipline problems, dropout rates and a wealth of other information. This is the third year for the new AzMERIT-based grades. Schools that have gotten their third ‘D’ are now ranked as “failing.” The state hasn’t yet settled on what that will mean for a particular school. However, the state has set aside money to reward high-ranking schools, which will ironically mostly go to schools in already wealthy areas.

On the other hand, last year the state legislature made the AzMERIT test voluntary – which means schools can choose other tests like the SAT to report to the state. It’s unclear how that change will affect the state grading system for schools in the coming years.

Statewide, Arizona lags behind the national average for subjects. One recent nation study found Arizona ranked No. 37 for math test scores and No. 38 for reading scores. The state ranks 50th for the pupil-to-teacher ratio, No. 43 for its dropout rate and No. 48 for per-student spending.

Still, the school grades do provide a way to compare schools from one community to another – and in some cases schools with similar student populations end up with very different grades.

Schools in communities with a strong presence of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints often had higher ratings. That could reflect the larger percentage of intact families, higher levels of family education and greater family support for education – all factors studies have shown can have a big influence on student achievement.

In the sprawling, two-county region only three high schools earned ‘A’ ratings: Round Valley High School, St. Johns High School and Snowflake High School.

Elementary and middle schools fared much better in the state rankings, which give the most weight to student performance on standardized tests in English and math. About 60 to 90 percent of a school’s grade relies on raw test scores, growth in test scores over the course of the school year or the scores of selected groups – like English Language Learners, who speak a language other than English at home.

Elementary and middle schools with ‘A’ grades included:

Capps Elementary (Heber)

Linden Elementary (Show Low)

Snowflake Intermediate

Snowflake Junior High

Taylor Intermediate (Snowflake)

Alpine Elementary.

The elementary and middle schools with a ‘D’ or an ‘F’ were once again mostly those serving reservation communities, with a few exceptions like the schools in Winslow and Holbrook. The low-scoring schools include:

Canyon Day Junior High (Whiteriver)

McNary Elementary

Mogollon Jr. High

That state also for the first time rated alternative schools, mostly small programs that take students who either got kicked out of the traditional district high school or simply decided they preferred a different style of learning. Those schools include some charter schools as well as district alternative schools, some with an online model.

The very small enrollment has posed problems when it comes to coming up with a way to assign a ranking, since the smaller the group the less the average test scores reflects anything but individual student differences. So the rating system for the alternative schools includes things like whether students are on track to graduate and whether they’re continuing to take enough classes.

At the elementary school level, test scores determined 90 percent of the grade – including improvements in scores in the course of the year and the scores of groups like students who don’t speak English at home. Non-test-based factors make up just 10 percent of the grade, including chronic absenteeism and what percentage of students with disabilities attend regular classrooms.

At the high school level, test scores – including growth – account for about 60 percent of the school grade. Another 20 percent is based on the school’s graduation and dropout rate and another 20 percent by the “college and career readiness factors.”

Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at paleshire@payson.com

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