With test scores above national averages, Stapley Junior High School has a reputation for excellence.
So it’s not surprising that principal Rod Rich expects state officials to label his school “excelling” on Wednesday when they release academic achievement profiles for all public schools. What is surprising: That same day, the federal government will deem Stapley a failure.
Through a complex maze of mathematical formulas, the Mesa school will pass Arizona’s accountability system. But it will fail the federal government’s unforgiving No Child Left Behind law.
And Stapley parents, like other parents whose children’s schools are labeled, will be left trying to figure out what it all means.
“I think the parents at my school will think this is ridiculous,” Rich said. “This
school is doing a good job.”
The Arizona Department of Education plans to release a barrage of data on Wednesday. Every public school will be labeled “excelling,” “highly performing,” “performing” or “underperforming” — as required under state legislation enacted when voters approved an education sales tax in 2000. The state labels are based on test scores, attendance rates and dropout rates.
Also on Wednesday, state officials will note whether each school made “adequate yearly progress” as required by the federal No Child Left Behind law. The federal labels also are based on student achievement.
Each labeling system comes with serious ramifications — from initial public shaming to eventual state takeover — for schools that fail to perform well, especially those receiving federal funds to educate poor children. “I call it the two-headed accountability monster,” said John Baracy, superintendent of the Tempe Elementary School District.
Arizona had already started devising ways to label a school’s academic progress when the federal government, under newly elected President George W. Bush, decided to create a federal system that does the same thing.
The result is that several states, including Arizona, have now created complicated dual systems for answering a simple question: Is this school doing a good job?
Educators say a label won’t provide the answer.
“You have to visit the school and the community,” said Terry Locke, spokesman for the Chandler Unified School District. “You can learn more about a school by pounding the pavement than by analyzing spreadsheets.”
Some parents say they will pay little attention when labels are released this week.
“I don’t put a lot of credence in that type of information,” said Scottsdale parent Tracy Czech. “I believe more in motivating students to have a passion for learning.”
Mesa parent Geri Nichols maintains it’s not fair to compare schools serving disadvantaged families with the schools her children attend in more affluent east Mesa.
“My heart breaks for these teachers in schools labeled ‘underperforming,’ ” she said. “We need to celebrate the teachers who work with children who come from disadvantaged homes, instead of discouraging them.”
State officials say they are trying to do that. The Arizona Board of Education changed the formula for state labels so that schools in poor neighborhoods are given more credit for how much progress their students make instead of how high they score.
The criteria for “excelling” schools also have been changed this year so that more than 120 Arizona schools will get the top label. Last year, just three schools were “excelling.”
Tom Horne, state superintendent of public instruction, denies that he and the state board have made it easier to get a good label.
“It was inaccurate to say there were only three excelling schools in this state,” Horne said. “The number of schools getting a negative label has declined, but I made a rule we can’t have anyone getting a higher label that we can’t justify.” In addition, state officials changed two of last year’s labels to more positive-sounding names: “Improving” is now “highly performing,” and “maintaining” has become “performing.”
Horne said the changes make Arizona’s system more accurate and fair than the federal one. In fact, he’s urging media and parents to ignore the federal labels in favor of the state labels.
“The federal system literally has 144 ways to fail,” Horne said.
Stapley Junior High is discovering that the hard way. Rich said calculations by the Mesa Unified School District show his school will get the top label from the state, but fail the federal system because three special-education students were not tested on Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards.
The federal law requires 95 percent of each subgroup of students — ethnic groups, English-language learners, special education, poor children, boys and girls — to be tested if there are 30 or more students in that group.
“There were 39 special-education children enrolled, and we tested 36,” Rich said. “They may have been out ill or they may have transferred to another school.”
The consequences for Stapley are not as severe as they are for Title I schools
receiving federal dollars for poor children. Those schools must develop improvement plans and offer students the opportunity to attend other schools if they fail to improve.
For Stapley, the consequence is a public bad grade. Rich says that’s bad enough.
“It’s bad for the state and the district as a whole when you have a certain number of schools that are not making ‘adequate yearly progress,’ ” Rich said. “People need to understand the ridiculousness of this rating scale.”