Mesa schools graded after 2-year hiatus

This is how schools in Mesa scored in preliminary grading by the state. (Ken Sain/Tribune)

The Arizona Department of Education’s recently preliminary letter grades for individual Mesa district and charter schools include both successes and areas for improvement.

Letter grades for the 2021-2022 school year are the first in two years issued for Arizona schools because of the pandemic disruption.

Schools had until Nov. 15 to appeal the grade and the State Board of Education will them Dec. 9.

Out of the 105 Mesa schools identified in the 2022 data, those with an A or “excellent” are 22%; B, “highly performing,” 37%’ C, “performing,” 35%’ D, “minimally performing,” 6%. No schools got an F.

This compares favorably with the distribution of grades across the entire state.

Mesa showed a lower proportion of D and F schools than average and a higher proportion of A and C schools.

Federal law requires states to measure schools’ performance using objective indicators, and since 2010, Arizona state law has required schools to receive a letter grade corresponding to those performance measures.

Grading schools is more complicated than scoring a multiple-choice test.

Depending on whether a school serves Kindergarten through eighth grade, high school or both, either four or five measures assigned different weights go into each school’s grade.

Kindergarten through eighth-grade schools are rated according to four factors, and high schools and K-12 schools are rated according to five factors.

For K-8 schools, 50% of the grade is based on “growth,” or how much individual student’s math and language performances improved between 2019 and 2022.

Another 30% of a school’s grade comes from performance on standard tests, and the rest of the assessment comes from “Acceleration/Readiness” and English Learner growth and proficiency.

For high school and K-12 schools, the most heavily weighted factor is standardized test scores, which is 30%. Student growth, graduation rate and College and Career Readiness Indicator are each 20%.

Each year the State Board of Education decides the numeric cutoffs for each letter grade.

So, the state board knows ahead of time how many schools will get As, Bs, Cs, etc. any given year, and the board factors that knowledge into its cutoff decisions.

Along with the grades, the state also releases the various scores that went into the grades, giving parents a chance to dig into the data to see where exactly schools performed better or worse.

For the K-8 schools, the state is using the same cutoffs it did in 2019.

For high schools, it’s using standard deviations – a statistical grouping of scores – which resulted in slightly higher grades than using the previous cutoffs.

Rebecca Beebe, director of government affairs for Arizona School Administrators, told the state board before the Oct. 17 vote setting the cutoffs that school letter grades can be demoralizing for staff.

Arguing against an “arbitrary” 70/80/90 model for determining school grades, which the board rejected, Beebe said low grades could be “a huge blow to our educators who have consistently gone above and beyond to serve Arizona students.”

“That’s the last thing we need in a time like this – and it does not reflect the reality which is that schools are coming out of the COVID years and improving,” she said.

State board member Dr. Jacqui Clay echoed this sentiment.

“Regardless of what form of accountability we select, we will not and should not hold our schools hostage by data that does not take into consideration the whole-child approach,” Clay said.

“My concern is we have so many people who are not educators who are on the outside dictating and not really sitting down, listening, empathizing and understanding what’s going on in the schools,” Clay explained.

The State Board of Education encourages parents “to have letter grade conversations with their student’s school administrator and staff members.”

It cautioned that “qualitative measures, which will vary in importance from family to family, should also be considered. Some students thrive in a small school, while others seek the wide range of options a larger school offers.”

The new letter grades can be compared with the previous ones but with the caveat that some of the standardized tests used to measure student performance have changed since 2019.

Last year the statewide assessment shifted away from AzM2 in high school and grades 3-8 to the ACT in the 11th grade and the AASA in grades 3-8, so grades don’t give a perfect apples-to-apples comparison.

Fifty Mesa schools, or about half the schools in the city, earned the same letter grade they received in 2019, the last school year public schools were assigned grades.

Sixteen public schools in Mesa – including charters and Mesa Public Schools – raised their grades for 2022. About twice as many, 34, earned lower grades than they had in 2019.

Two schools improved by two letter grades during the pause in grading: Entz Elementary went from a C to an A and the Liberty Arts Academy went from Ds to Bs.

Two schools dropped two grades over the pandemic: Patterson Elementary and Sousa Elementary both went from As to Cs.

The Tribune could not compare letter grades for seven schools because matches could not be found between the 2020 and 2022 data.

In several cases, that was because schools closed or new ones opened since 2019.

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