November 30, 2018

School Grades are in: What do they mean and what’s next? (Article 1 of a 2-part series)

When it comes to education, are there any two words that are more important than “school improvement?” It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about district or charter schools, rural or urban, low-income or high-income – school improvement is a universal goal for every community.

Here in Arizona, we have instituted an “A-F” rating system for our public schools. While everyone agrees it’s not perfect, and work continues to improve and update the rating system, it does provide parents, educators, and elected officials a guide on the relative performance of schools across our state. The release of the 2017-2018 grades showed continued improvement for many schools, both charter and district, and some declines for a smaller number of schools.

Overall, 452 schools received an “A” grade, up from 320 last year. That’s a 41% increase in the number of “A” schools.

Of the public schools that received “A” or “B” ratings, 68% of these were charter schools and 55% were district schools. This is an encouraging trend as it shows steady improvement in both district schools and the growing charter sector. More importantly, it means that more students from a diversity of backgrounds now have access to quality educational choices. It’s estimated that 22% of the enrolled students in “A” rated schools qualify for free and reduced lunches, and 40% of enrolled students at A-rated schools are now non-white. And in “B” rated schools, approximately 50% of students quality for free and reduced lunches and 55% are non-white. These numbers demonstrate that more lower-income and minority students are attending “A” and “B” rated schools than in the past – a positive trend for Arizona that needs to continue.

When it comes to the “F” rating category, charter schools account for 5% and district schools account for 2% of the total schools receiving this designation. The slight increase in the number of failing schools is concerning, and Arizona needs to do everything we can to stop this trend. Additionally, Arizona must continue to focus on holding failing schools accountable, working to improve them, and if all else fails, closing them down.

However, when it comes to performance related accountability, there is a disparity between what can be done for a traditional district school vs. a charter school. Many Arizonans probably don’t realize that under current law, public charter schools can and are being shut down if they are failing.

This is not true for failing district schools – no matter how bad a district school’s performance may be, they can’t be shut down.  If we are to improve school performance, we must ensure that all public schools have the same accountability measures and consequences in place.

Much like the work being done to create a better system of assessment and accountability for charter schools’ financial health, Arizona should begin working on new policies to hold all public schools accountable if they are not delivering academic quality to their students and their families. In the next issue of Arizona Extra Credit, we’ll look at ways to continue expanding the number and reach of high-performing public schools while also creating effective tools to hold failing schools more accountable, whether they are district or charter.

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