The Arizona Department of Education admitted that the AZ LEARNS accountability system needed to be improved to adequately measure and compare schools and school districts.
With the release of letter grades in the new A-F Accountability Letter Grade System, there is hope the change will provide a clearer understanding of the current status of individual school and district achievement.
A written statement on the AZ DoE website reads: "Under the AZ LEARNS Accountability System, a ‘performing' label is the second lowest ranking out of five. The result? Over 90 percent of Arizona schools receive a ‘performing' or better label. Clearly, this labeling system does not present intuitive and meaningful descriptions to parents and educators; that is why it is being phased out."
For the next two years the old system will still be the official grading of a school or district. Lorah Neville, executive director for curriculum and learning services for Kyrene, said this will allow the Department of Education to work the kinks out of the new system. She went on to say that they have been open to input from school administrators in the months leading up to the public release of the achievement results.
"Right now, there is a little bit of take it with a grain of salt because they are still working things out and recalculating," Neville said. "They have also given us the opportunity to question part of it. With their willingness to relook and relook at the components, I anticipate that it will only get better over the next two years."
The main difference between the two is that student growth was not taken into account with AZ LEARNS, but the new system weighs it equally with academic achievement, which is measured by the percentage of passing scores on the Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards (AIMS).
Academic growth is measured by taking similar students at schools across the state and comparing how much or how little their scores on AIMS improved from the previous year. The 25 percent of students who had the least amount of growth are weighed double in the new system.
Points are given for both academic growth and outcomes on the AIMS test, with 100 points possible for each category. A school receives an A if it scores between 140 and 200 points, a B for 120 to 139, a C for 100 to 119, and a D if it scores anywhere below 100. There were no Fs given this year.
One thing that raised concern for high schools was that the AIMS test is generally taken only sophomore year, thus, scores from the SAT-10, taken by ninth-graders, will be used to compare.
Schools in Ahwatukee Foothills generally scored well. Desert Vista received an A and Mountain Pointe received a B. Seven Kyrene schools in Ahwatukee Foothills received an A and five received a B. As a whole, the district received a B, and missed an A by one point.
Ahwatukee Foothills Prep received an A, while Horizon Community Learning Center scored a B. Betsy Fera, executive director at Horizon Community Learning Center, said they were 2.5 percentage points away from an A, and had words of praise for the new accountability system.
"It is a support to instruction because anytime you have more data it is a good thing," Fera said. "I think in the long run, once we are able to learn even more about how to use it, and how to use the growth model, I think it is going to support schools in making individual goals for students."
While the new model is not perfect, Fera said it's something to build on, and provides a better understanding of the current academic status of a school. But the school also sets its own goals.
"Our goal is to see a higher percentage of students passing AIMS," Fera explained. "The difficulty is not just improving your lower scores, but also maintaining the higher ones."
While the new system is a good measure of where a school stands academically, Neville said it should not be the only thing a parent looks at in deciding where to send their child.
"With all things, you shouldn't judge a school, or a teacher, or a kiddo by a single thing," Neville said. "We look at it as a holistic approach, in that you have to look at all components."
To find out more about the new achievement system, visit www.azed.gov.
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