State grades QC schools first time in 2 years

The state Department of Education has released letter grades for schools and Queen Creek stacks up with two public schools achieving an A, seven earning a B, three getting a C and one a D.

Queen Creek’s charter schools are also graded and one received an A, and six earned a B.

State and federal laws require the Education Department to develop an annual achievement profile for every public school in Arizona based on an A through F grading scale. 

The system measures year-to-year student academic growth, proficiency on English language arts, math and science, the proficiency and academic growth of English language learners.

Those indicators show if “an elementary student is ready for success in high school and that high school students are ready to succeed in a career or higher education and high school graduation rates,” according to the state Board of Education’s website.

Queen Creek’s graduation rate is 93%.

Due to COVID-19, this year’s letter grades are the most complete and accurate set given since the 2018-2019 school year.

The state uses what it calls “cut scores,” thresholds that a school must meet to attain an A, B, C, D or F letter grade.

The Education Department calculates scores using those cutoffs together with data on five quantifiable factors submitted by the schools.

Those factors include student academic growth from year to year.

That calculation seems cut and dried until the “cut scores” are factored in, said Queen Creek Unified Governing Board President Ken Brague.

He said the cutoffs are arbitrary, and can create misleading results.

“Purely an example: Let’s say you have a super high performing school. Last year let’s say all the kid were at 98% and this year, when you test that same school all the kids are at 97%,” Brague said.

“According to the grades, they didn’t grow, they lost, so that’s now a ‘bad’ school even though every single kid was at 97% and totally outperformed the rest of the state.”

Student achievement growth is just one of the five variables. However, it can have an outsize influence on a school’s letter grade.

For example, it accounts for 50% of the grading score for elementary schools, according to the state, which means even a slight dip in scores can have a dramatic effect on a school’s letter grade.

Thus they paint a picture that may not necessarily be accurate when comparing academic growth and performance year over year.

Pre-COVID, Brague said, “we knocked it out of the park.

“We did phenomenally well. This year we did great, but our percentage of growth wasn’t what it was compared to last year. What I would like to see is if you reach a certain threshold, you get all the points you are eligible to get.”

The state also creates cutoffs and measures performance in career or higher education readiness among high school seniors, high school graduation rates and proficiency on statewide standardized tests, such as the AASA or ACT.

Right now, Queen Creek’s test scores for math and reading proficiency are 63% and 59% percent, respectively – “which in my mind is a D- or an F,” said board member-elect James Knox, who unseated Brague, a 13-year incumbent.

Knox thinks test scores are the most effective way to measure student performance, and the first place that the schools need to improve.

He called on the school board to hold Superintendent Dr. Perry Berry accountable for bringing them up.

“I think we need to set a three-year plan saying ‘Superintendent Berry you need to sit here and in three years you need to have the average test scores up to 80%,” Knox said after the recent election. “Work with him, help support him in reaching that goal in three years or he needs to be terminating his contract and we can get someone in there who can do this.”

For high school and K-12 schools, those standardized test scores account for up to 30% of the school’s letter grade.

Frances Brandon-Pickett Elementary, Desert Mountain, Jack Barnes, and Legacy Traditional, a charter school, dropped from an A to a B. Schnepf Elementary scored a “P,” or passing.

Leading Edge Academy, also a charter, moved up a letter grade, from a C to a B, Queen Creek Elementary achieved an A and Queen Creek High School went from a C to an A. Queen Creek Junior High scored a C. Newell Barney Junior High also dropped to a C.

The state defines the letter grades as follows:

A (excellent): Distinguished performance on the statewide assessment, significant student growth, high four-year graduation rates, students on track to proficiency; overall performance is significantly higher than state average.

B (highly performing): High performance on statewide assessment and/or significant student growth and/or higher four-year graduation rates and/or moving students to proficiency at a higher rate than the state average.

C (performing): Adequate performance but needs improvement on some indicators, such as proficiency, growth, or graduation rate.

D (minimally performing): Inadequate performance in proficiency, growth and/or four-year graduation rate relative to the state average.

F (failing): Systematic failures in proficiency, growth, and graduation rates (below 67%); performance is in bottom 5% of the state.

“I think they are fine-tuning the process,” said Brague, who added that it is nearly impossible to apply one set of arbitrary, general standards to a whole district of students, and lauded the state’s effort to create the letter grades, calling it “important, but difficult.”

“It’s the struggle of public education,” Brague said. “You have kids who are struggling to stay in a class and you have those who are excelling and are bored to tears in a classroom because it’s going so slow and you have to find a way to teach all of those kids so that they are all learning and it’s a huge challenge.” 

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