Arizona relaxes school rankings
More lenient formula will save state money
The Arizona Republic
Sept. 17, 2003
Pat Kossan

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The State Board of Education made it easier Tuesday for schools to be labeled "excelling" and harder to be dubbed "underperforming."

A new, more lenient formula to rank Arizona schools will save the state money and save dozens of schools from the embarrassment of being labeled "underperforming" a second year in a row.

The new ranking formula, based primarily on Stanford 9 and AIMS test scores, will lead to fewer than 200 schools being labeled "underperforming" in October.

It also will push about 164 schools into the highest ranking, "excelling."

Only three schools made the "excelling" list last year, the first time Arizona labeled schools.

The labeling is part of a new federal law that Arizona, along with many other states, is finding costly and unpopular with parents, teachers and principals.

Revising the labeling formula is one of several steps state officials are taking to make it easier for schools to conform with the federal mandates.

This year the state also made it easier for students to pass Arizona's  Instrument to Measure Standards, or AIMS test, and far more difficult for a school to be labeled "failing" and face a state takeover.

Cutting state's costs

Labeling fewer schools "underperforming" will save the state money.

The Arizona Department of Education promised to send teams of experts to each "underperforming" school.

The teams will review teaching methods and school budgets and create reports on how the schools can improve.

Last year's labeling was unpopular with many parents and educators and even some politicians, who said it unfairly labeled too many schools in poor rural and urban areas as underperforming.

Research shows that students living in poverty enter kindergarten trailing their peers in academic skills and often have trouble catching up.

Among other changes, this year's formula gives far more credit to schools whose students show a year's worth of progress, regardless of grade level, and makes it easier for high schools to show progress in AIMS scores.

Arizona schools chief Tom Horne said the new formula used to rank schools as "excelling," "highly performing," "performing" or "underperforming" will create a more realistic picture of state schools. The formula is so different, Horne said, that a few schools labeled underperforming last year are expected to jump to "highly performing."

'Correcting an injustice'

"Schools in poor areas that do a good job of teaching children should be recognized for their work," Horne said. "I consider that correcting an injustice."

John Wright, vice president of Arizona's teachers union, said this year's ranking system is more fair.

But Wright said that time and money spent working and reworking a federally mandated ranking formula just "to put a big sign on a school" would be better spent improving teaching and learning in the classroom.

Last year, Arizona ranked 1,271 schools, and 276 were labeled  underperforming.

The new rankings will be released Oct. 15.

The state does not rank about 600 schools that either have less than four  years of data, are small, teach only kindergarten through second grade or  are alternative schools.