Original URL: http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/news/articles/1012statelabels12.html

Doubts cloud school rankings
Criteria eased under new formula
The Arizona Republic
Oct. 12, 2003
The Arizona Republic
Pat Kossan

Criteria eased under new formula

On Wednesday, Arizona education officials will rank 1,400 state schools, and the number of those "underperforming" is expected to drop by nearly 100 from last year.

The number of Arizona schools ranked as "excelling" is expected to jump to 160, up from three last year.

Those dramatic improvements raise the question: How much is due to children learning more in the classroom, and how much is designed to boost the spirit of parents and teachers?

Although Arizona Senate President Ken Bennett is glad many public schools appear to be doing a better job, he wonders how much faith to place in the revised ranking formula.


"There's an equal and simultaneous concern that we are lowering the standards to make us all feel better," said Bennett, a former president of the State Board of Education.

Over the past year, the state board approved a more lenient formula for ranking 1,400 public schools. It includes:


Summary of Arizona's school ranking formula


For all schools

First, the formula calculates the average number of kids who passed the tests in 2000 and 2001 for third-, fifth- and eight-graders and high school. It also calculates the average number of kids who passed the tests in 2001, 2002 and 2003 in each grade. The most weight is given to whichever number is higher in each grade and in each test.

Schools also get credit for moving students out of the "falls far below standards" score, the lowest of four scores possible, and for having a larger percentage in the "exceeds" standards, the highest of four scores possible. The formula excludes test scores from students learning English who have not completed three full years of English instruction.

A school gets credit if it meets the federal standard called "Adequate Yearly Progress." To make AYP, a school must improve its overall AIMS scores, and all students in eight categories must improve their scores. Those categories include five ethnic groups, as well as students learning English, students living in poverty and special-education students.

Additionally, for elementary schools

Measure of Academic Progress: This state standard is adapted from the national Stanford 9 test. It excludes test scores of students learning English who have not completed three full years of English instruction. It includes only the test scores of students who attended a school for an entire year and determines how many of those students learned enough to advance one grade level. If 60 to 100 percent of the school's students make that one-year leap, the school gets additional credit.

AIMS writing test: If the school increases the percentage of third-, fifth- and eighth-grade students who passed the test, the school gets additional credit.

Additionally, for high schools

Reducing dropouts: If a school had a 6 to 9 percent dropout rate in 2000, it gets credit if the number fell by 1 percent as measured by the 2001-03 three-year average dropout rate. If a school's dropout rate was greater than 9 percent in 2000, the school gets credit only if the average dropout rate fell by 2 percent.

Increasing graduation rates: If a school has a 74 to 90 percent graduation rate in 2000, it gets credit for raising the rate 1 percent as measured by its 2000-02 three-year average. If a school has a graduation rate of less than 74 percent, it gets credit only if it raises that rate by 2 percent or better over the same three-year average.

 Vaulting more than 160 schools into the "excelling" rank. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne lobbied legislators to change what he considered the unfairly tough criteria that were set in law.

 Reducing the number of "underperforming" schools to about 190, down from 276 last year. As late as Friday, the state board adjusted the formula it approved less than a month ago.

The latest changes were made to keep the number of "underperforming" schools around 13.5 percent. If Friday's changes weren't made, more than 22 percent of elementary school would have ranked in the bottom category.

 Changing last year's confusing "maintaining" and "improving" labels to a ranking system of "underperforming," "performing," "highly performing" and "excelling."

Horne said the revised formula is not perfect and expects more changes next year. But it is a step toward a more accurate, objective and fair ranking, not a "feel good" system, he said.

"I feel last year the world was given an inaccurate picture of Arizona schools," Horne said. "It's important people know the positive as well as the negative. It helps attract business to Arizona. It's good for the morale of the people doing a good job."

Schools have the right to appeal their rankings until Oct. 20.


Step by step


Retired Intel executive Matthew Diethelm is vice president of the State Board of Education, which oversees K-12 instruction and approved the new ranking formula. Although Diethelm voted for the new formula, he said at Friday's board meeting that he wanted to toughen it in coming years and stop grading state schools on a curve.

But for now, Diethelm is willing to get there step by step.

"I think we're honestly trying to motivate schools to improve," Diethelm said, "without tearing them up so badly that we unmotivated them."

Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University, also sits on the state board. Crow cautioned parents to use this year's rankings as one small slice of information about their neighborhood schools. Formulas to rank schools are influenced by what is practical and politically feasible, Crow said, and use both objective and subjective measurements.

"Everyone is trying, and everyone needs to be patient," Crow said.


Awaiting the results


The Arizona State Department of Education is expected to rank about 1,400 of the state's 1,800 district and charter schools on Wednesday. New schools, K-2 primary schools, small schools and alternative schools will not be ranked.

Here are the expected 2003 results from the ranking formula approved by the State Board of Education:

Excelling: 11.7 percent, or 164 schools.

Highly performing: 15.7 percent, or 220 schools.

Performing: 59.1 percent, or 827 schools.

Underperforming: 13.5 percent, or 189 schools.

For the first time, the Arizona State Department of Education labeled 1,270 schools in 2002. New schools, primary schools, small schools and alternative schools were not labeled. The labels "improving" and "maintaining" were considered too confusing and were eliminated in favor of a clearer ranking system.

Here are the 2002 results:

Excelling: 0.2 percent, or 3 schools.

Maintaining: 43 percent, or 547 schools.

Improving: 35.1 percent, or 446 schools.

Underperforming: 21.7 percent, or 276 schools.

Source: Arizona State Department of Education


But he warned that if state officials set education standards too low, it will threaten the economic and social future of the state. Along with the new rankings, Crow suggests parents keep their eye on how state schools measure up to national standards in reading and writing, plus high school graduation rates. By those measures, he added, Arizona schools have a long way to go.

Researcher Kathy Christie, a policy analyst for Education Commission of the States in Denver, said most states have developed complex formulas to rank their schools.

Some states aim high and simply let the schools fall where they may, she said, even if it means taking political heat and finding money for costly fixes. Other states, like Arizona, have reached a consensus on an acceptable rate of failure now and will eventually tighten the formula.


Public perceptions


Not all educators welcome the easier ranking system.

Mark Yslas, principal at Herrera Elementary School in Phoenix, was upset that the state softened the formula. He said that his teachers and students worked hard to move out of last year's "underperforming" rank and is worried that people may think his school caught a break instead of conquered a challenge.

"Maybe the public perception will be, 'Of course you came out of underperforming, they made it easier,' " Yslas said.

Arizona's latest ranking formula is based mainly on a school's overall test scores, including the national Stanford 9 test and the state's own Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards, or AIMS.

What parents should know


If your child's school is ranked "underperforming," the state will appoint a team of experts to review the school's data, visit the campus and make recommendations for improving teaching, curriculum and budget. Ask the principal for a copy of the report.

If your child's school is underperforming for a third year in 2004, state officials will research the school and the State Board of Education has the power to take it over.

AIMS test scores in reading, writing and math will become more important in the state ranking formula in the coming years. The AIMS test measures your child's knowledge of Arizona State Standards, a grade-by-grade list of what students are expected to learn. They can be found online at www.ade.state.az.us/ standards/content standards.asp.

The ranking formula credits schools with the tiniest improvements in scores, averaged over the past two or three years, and uses a limited number of student test scores from each school.


Parental input


Arizona PTA President Lucy Ranus said many parents tell her they doubt the accuracy, even the value, of the state ranking system. When a school is ranked poorly, it only angers parents.

It's hard on many parents who work with teachers and feel responsible when their school gets a poor ranking, she said. Ranus said most parents want schools to improve.

"I'm just not sure labeling them is the best way to make that happen," she said. "We're not sure it really measures what's going on in the classroom."

Reporter Ryan Konig contributed to this article.