We live in a society that seems to always want the fast and easy answer: Yes or no. True or false. Good or bad.
And we love labels: Conservative or liberal. Public or private. Republican or Democrat.
So it seems natural that we'd apply this same either-or mentality when we scrutinize one of our most important institutions: education. Have the kids bubble in answers on tests, see how much progress they made compared to last year, check how many of them dropped out of school, and then stir it all into a mathematical formula, hit the compute button - and out pops the one word that sums up whether that school is doing a good job.
Yes or no. Excelling or failing. A or F.
This coming week, the Arizona Department of Education will release its annual performance labels for the state's public schools. We'll learn how many of our schools are excelling, highly performing, performing plus (which, as one testing guru told the Tribune, "sounds like a grade of gasoline"), performing, or underperforming. In addition to those labels, for the first time, the state will also assign letter grades to each school.
This follows the release earlier this month of what's known as AYP (adequate yearly progress) results for each school under the federal No Child Left Behind law.
But do these labels and grades really sum up the learning that took place in a classroom for 180 days? Do they really tell you everything you need to know as a parent looking for the best school for your child?
Mike Oliver, principal of Mesa's Zaharis Elementary School, says test scores are "a measure of learning," but that "real achievement is a constellation of a variety of measures."
"Not everything of value can be bubbled-in on a Scantron ... We all are familiar with Einstein's take on measurement: ‘Not everything that can be measured counts, and not everything that counts can be measured,' " Oliver said. "I believe he was on to something."
And Oliver must be on to something, too. Of Zaharis' approximately 800 to 900 students, 341 are open-enrolled there from seven cities outside the Mesa Unified School District.
Every few weeks, Oliver gives tours of his east Mesa campus to parents and other educators. He can't recall parents ever asking him about the school's performance label. Instead, after observing and listening to teachers and students, they often ask: Is Zaharis a private school?
"Parents notice and comment on how the children are learning with smiles on their faces. They see students learning through inquiry and working together to make sense of the world. They comment on the emphasis placed on reading and on how well the children know books and authors," Oliver said.
"From my vantage point, parents who take the time to visit a school are placing their own label on the school - and they do this after they have taken the school for a metaphoric test-drive and have kicked the tires."
Christina Trujillo, director of curriculum, instruction and assessment for the Tempe Elementary School District, says the labels and test scores on academic subjects are important, but that schools should also be educating "the whole child" by providing electives, such as music and physical education, and a nurturing environment. Trujillo, who is also the mother of a kindergartner, recommends that parents ask themselves three questions: Is my child happy at school? Is my child challenged academically? Am I seeing growth in my child?
"That's how a parent can take all the pieces and put them together," she said.
And that's exactly what Chandler parent Rita Giacopuzzi does. She has a son at Mesa's Red Mountain High School and a daughter at Gilbert's Mesquite High School. She chose those schools after carefully reviewing their test scores and labels, demographics, student-to-teacher ratios, extracurricular activities - and visiting each campus. She considered each child's interests and personality, too, in determining the right fit for each one.
Giacopuzzi said the various school labels are confusing, especially when one label gives the school a good rating and another rates it poorly - a contradiction that often happens each year when state and federal results are released.
"That's why I feel I have to do so much research on my own," she said. "I meet teachers and sit in on classes. I also talk to police departments for each school. I like the labels. But as far as putting all the weight of my decision on that label? I do a lot of other research."
The labels and grades Arizona will release this week are an improvement over the days when average test scores and percentile rankings were the only academic data released to the public. But before you decide that label or grade is the whole measure of a school's worth, visit the campus, observe what goes on there, and as Oliver says, "kick the tires" when you ask yourself, "Is that school doing a good job?"
Most likely, you'll find that the easy one-word response isn't the best answer.