School letter grades show students’ proficiency growth, more A & B schools - AZEdNews
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School letter grades show students’ proficiency growth, more A & B schools

Mr. Lizhanhai, Who Teaches Math At Coronado Elementary School's Mandarin STEAM Camp, Gives A Student High Fives. Photo By Lisa Irish/AZEdNews

Students showed growth in proficiency in math and English Language Arts on statewide assessments and more schools received an A or B letter grade during the 2021- 2022 school year.

The School A through F letter grades were released Monday by the Arizona Department of Education at the direction of the Arizona State Board of Education.

School letter grades show students’ proficiency growth, more A & B schools Chris-Kotterman
Chris Kotterman

The COVID-19 pandemic affected schools by various degrees in the 2021-2022 school year. While COVID-19 was a universal factor for schools across the state, the State Board of Education recognizes individual schools may have experienced substantial events beyond the normal impacts.

“This year’s statewide assessment results showed a 3% increase in English/Language Arts (ELA) scores and a 2% increase in math scores, meaning that we are seeing progress from the assessments administered at the end of the 2020-2021 school year,” said Chris Kotterman, director of governmental relations for Arizona School Boards Association.

“This tells us that students can make up ground from learning time lost during the pandemic,” Kotterman said.

“Students overall actually did better on AZ’s statewide assessments in 2021-2022 than they did the year before. That is what we want to see every year,” Kotterman said.

What the grades mean

Just like a grade on students’ report card, an A means excellent, and a B means highly performing.

Schools with an A letter grade showed distinguished performance on the statewide assessment, significant student growth from year to year for individual students or maintenance of top achievement for high-performing students, high four-year graduation rates, students on track to proficiency and overall performance significantly higher than state average.

Schools receiving a B letter grade showed 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.

“Letter grades are weighted heavily to year-over-year growth of a student vs. the statewide average,” Kotterman said.

2021-2022 A through F School Letter Grades courtesy of the Arizona State Board of Education

Download spreadsheet below to see each school’s letter grades and points earned courtesy Arizona State Board of Education

A school district’s response to letter grades

For example, 10 Peoria Unified School District schools rose one letter grade with 37 schools labelled A (Excellent) or B “Highly Performing. Each of Peoria Unified’s high schools received either an “A” or “B” label. 

In addition, nine elementary and high schools were within two points of a higher letter grade and are continuing to make academic progress.

“I am extremely proud of the work taking place in our schools,” said Dr. Jason Reynolds, superintendent of the Northwest Valley school district serving more than 37,000 students.

“The last two years have undoubtedly presented challenges, but our staff remain committed to supporting student learning. We have turned these challenges into opportunities and our letter grades are one example of how we look at growth and improvement,” Dr. Reynolds said.

The release of labels presents an opportune time to reflect on the multiple ways schools measure student learning. The A-F Accountability System is just one of those tools. Throughout the school year, there are many ways teachers assess how students are doing in the classroom, including classwork, homework, quizzes, projects and teacher and counselor observations about individual student growth. The district also measures soft skills such as students’ ability to communicate, collaborate and think critically, said Danielle Airey, communications director for Peoria Unified. 

School letter grades show students’ proficiency growth, more A & B schools Making-Slime-1000-wide
Students make slime with a staff member at EdCamp at Frontier Elementary School in Peoria Unified School District. Photo by Lisa Irish/ AZEdNews

“As we continue to overcome the interruption to learning and reimagine what it means to educate students, we remain committed to ensuring that every student reaches their fullest potential,” Airey said in a press release.

Pandemic’s impact on school letter grades

Due to school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic and the inability of students to take statewide assessments that Spring, 2019-2020 school A through F letter grades remained the same as 2018-2019 letter grades, after the Arizona Legislature approved House Bill 2910 in 2020.

“Since COVID began in March 2020 and Governor Ducey ordered the closing of all schools, schools have been doing extraordinary work across the state. This is especially true of our certified staff, and most importantly our teachers,” said Rebecca Beebe, director of governmental affairs for Arizona School Administrators at the Board of Education meeting on Oct. 17.

“Some teachers taught over Zoom, some taught in person in the classroom risking their health and safety, and some taught in hybrid situations with kids both in person and online. Our teachers were very busy learning to teach and connect with students in new environments,” Beebe said.

“Since 2020 our kids have experienced trauma in myriad ways. As I mentioned in my comments last month, sadly there are both teachers and students who lost immediate members of their family to COVID. Some kids even lost their primary caretaker. This devastation surely impacts a students’ performance,” Beebe said.

School letter grades show students’ proficiency growth, more A & B schools i-nB4SzBG-XL
COVID-19 precautions the Mesa Public School District is taking when opening schools. Photo courtesy Tim Hacker/ Mesa Public Schools

For 2020-2021, school letter grades were paused after the Arizona Legislature approved HB 2402 in 2021. Instead of issuing letter grades, the Arizona Legislature and Gov. Doug Ducey directed the State Board of Education to identify below average schools, issue a report and direct the Arizona Dept. of Education to release component data.

“As districts across the state work to recover from the impacts of the pandemic and ensure students have the resources and opportunities they need to thrive, the Santa Cruz Valley Unified School District No. 35 is realizing many positive trends in the letter grades released today, said Shannon Enciso, communications director for the district.

For the first time since letter grades became a legal reporting system, the state of Arizona has rated all SCV35 schools as either an A or a B.

Student growth clearly drove school ratings with two sites receiving the maximum 50 points possible while other sites were very near to full points.  Acceleration and Readiness also fared well with three of our sites achieving a perfect 10/10 and Rio Rico High School earning their highest-ever College and Career Readiness Score of 18.5/20.

“Overall, we take these letter grades as an indication that the many significant steps we are taking as a District to modernize our curriculum, personalize our instruction, and provide clear and accurate feedback to students and families about student achievement are working,” stated Stephen Schadler, assistant superintendent for teaching, learning, and assessing. 

“Our teachers and administrators worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic to meet student needs and those same students and their families responded in kind.  These letter grades indicate that everyone’s collective and ongoing effort appears to be working,” Schadler said.

School letter grades show students’ proficiency growth, more A & B schools HP-for-Video-Mandarin-STEAM-Camp-Teacher-giving-High-fives-1000
Mr. Lizhanhai, who teaches math at Coronado Elementary School’s Mandarin STEAM Camp, gives a student high fives. Photo by Lisa Irish/AZEdNews

“The State Board kept the scores for what constitutes an A, B, C, or D constant from the prior year for K-8 schools, so we have a direct comparison point,” Kotterman said.

State letter grades are required by state law and the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to ensure statewide accountability and are based on a range of measurements including student growth on the statewide assessment.

“We have more A and B schools this year than we did before. This tells us that growth and proficiency rates were better than the prior test administration,” Kotterman said.

In the 2021-2022 school year, 365 K-8 schools received an A letter grade and 579 schools received a B letter grade. Among high schools serving students in grades 9 through 12, 69 received an A, and 87 received a B. Among hybrid schools – which serve non-typical school configurations such as schools that serve grades across both the K-8 model and the 9-12 model – 33 received an A and 34 received a B. While 18 alternative schools received an A and 67 received a B.

“Simply put, students have made gains this year, due to the efforts of teachers and education leaders all over the state investing incredible amounts of time and energy into Arizona students,” Kotterman said.

How schools used ESSER funds to help students

For the past two years, schools have used federal ESSER funds to help students overcome the learning loss experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic with Saturday School throughout the school year and summer school last summer and this summer at no cost to parents to help keep students on track for high school graduation.

Those efforts to help students also may be reflected in school letter grades for school districts, like Dysart Unified School District, that provided those options to help students.

Dysart Unified School District had 12 A-rated and 10 B-rated schools in the 2022 state accountability labels, more than doubling the number of A schools in the district from 2019, the last year the state issued labels.  

“What an outstanding showing for Dysart Schools! We are so proud of the hard work that our schools have been doing to improve and excel in academics and achievement,” said Dr. Jim Dean, superintendent of Dysart Unified.

School letter grades show students’ proficiency growth, more A & B schools Kyrene-Summer-Learning-1000-513
Students described what their teams did to try to cushion and protect an egg before dropping it from the top of a stepstool during Tracey Nordahl’s class at the Summer Academy and Expanded Learning Program at Kyrene de Los Cerritos Elementary School. Photo by Lisa Irish/ AZEdNews

“These labels help provide a glimpse into many areas of proficiency and growth for a school, and can help us see what’s working well, and where further improvement is needed to do even better,” Dr. Dean said.

“Schools have had access to ESSER dollars for things like additional instruction and new technology for all students, and there is a requirement under ESSER that a certain portion of ESSER funds be used specifically to target low-SES students,” Kotterman said.

“In addition, ESSER dollars favor school districts with higher Title I populations, meaning that the federal government made a significant investment in underserved students through ESSER,” Kotterman said.

“Additionally, Gov. Ducey provided some of the state’s ESSER funds to offer free summer school both this past summer and for the coming summer. Typically, school districts do not receive additional funding for summer school, so they often need to charge for it,” Kotterman said. “The ability for students to access these services for free has been crucial.”

“However, it’s all temporary. ESSER is one-time funding that ends in 2024,” Kotterman said. “But it does make you wonder why, if these strategies yield progress, we haven’t invested in them for students years before now.”

“ESSER provides a template for investing in underserved communities and providing the ability for lower-SES students to access extra learning opportunities,” Kotterman said.

“We should learn these lessons and apply them to help these students grow even after the federal government stops making us,” Kotterman said.

Board of Education sets letter grade cut scores

School letter grades show students’ proficiency growth, more A & B schools Alicia-Williams-768x512-Photo-courtesy-Katie-Campbell-Arizona-Capitol-Times
Alicia Williams. Photo courtesy of Arizona Capitol Times

The Arizona State Board of Education meets and sets cut scores – the number of points required to earn an A, B, C, D, or F letter grade and scores are calculated with the cut scores and data the schools submit.

K-12 schools that serve students in a hybrid model had questions about how their letter grades would be calculated, said Alicia Williams, executive director of the State Board of Education meeting on Oct. 17, 2022.

“They’d be using the 9-12 cut score which is aligned with the business rule calculation from previous years, and we’re confident that that is the correct way to do those hybrid schools,” Williams said.

The State Board of Education voted unanimously at their Oct. 17 meeting to adopt the prior year cut scores for K-8  schools and standard deviation cut scores for 9-12 schools and alternative 9-12 schools.

At that meeting, Rebecca Beebe, director of governmental affairs for Arizona School Administrators thanked the State Board of Education staff and Arizona Dept. of Education staff for their work on the A through F letter grades system and urged the board to adopt the cut scores they did.

“Let’s not forget that between the Spring of 2021 and 2022, our test scores improved. We are healing and improving, and we want schools and students to continue to grow academically, and we want teachers to know how much we appreciate and value them,” Beebe said.

Beebe said Arizona School Administrators appreciates that the board did not adopt a 70/80/90 model, which “is based on arbitrary cutoffs and arbitrary numbers and was created decades ago.”

“Adopting this model that results in almost 300 F schools in grades K-8 and almost 200 in grades 9-12 would be a huge blow to our educators who have consistently gone above and beyond to serve Arizona’s students,” Beebe said.

School letter grades show students’ proficiency growth, more A & B schools State_K-8_Model_FY21
How K-8 school letter grades are determined. Charts courtesy State Board of Education

The letter grades that would have resulted from that model would “ feel like a punishment to our teachers. 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,” Beebe said.

The letter grades released this week reflect a change in the statewide assessment tool to the ACT in the 11th grade and the Arizona’s Academic Standards Assessment in grades 3 through 8 starting in the 2021-22 school year from the AZMerit 2 for high school students and students in grades 3 through 8 during the  2018-2019 school year.

How school letter grades are calculated

For K-8 schools, 50% of their A through F letter grade is based on growth in students’ math and English/Language Arts performance on the state assessment in the 2020-2021 school year compared to their performance in the 2018- 2019 school year compared to their academic peers, 30% of the letter grade is based on students proficiency in math and English/Language arts on the state assessment, 10% is based on proficiency and growth on English Learner Assessment, 10% on increases in 8th grade students scoring highly proficient on the state math assessment, decreases in students scoring minimally proficient, decreases in the students scoring minimally proficient in Grade 3 English/Language Arts, a decrease in chronic absenteeism, inclusion of a higher percentage of special education students in general education classrooms than the state average, and improvement in schools subgroup scores, schools can earn a science bonus of up to 3 points for testing 95% of their students on the State Science Assessment, and Special education bonus of up 2 points for having up to 80% of the statewide average of students enrolled in special education for the full academic year.

School letter grades show students’ proficiency growth, more A & B schools State_9-12_Model_FY21
How grades 9-12 school letter grades are determined.

Those breakdowns change for schools that serve students in grades 9-12, with 30% of their letter grade depending on students’ proficiency on the state assessment, 20% on student growth in their math and English/Language Arts performance compared to their academic peers, 20% on the school’s 4-7-year graduation rate, 20% on students College and Career Readiness, an up to 3 point science bonus and up to 2 point special education bonus.

The letter grade for alternative 9-12 schools is based on 35% on an alternative College and Career Readiness indicator self-reported by the school, 30% of students Growth to Graduation that includes academic persistence, credits earned and the percent of student on track to graduate, 15% on students proficiency on the state assessment, 10% on proficiency and growth on the English Learner Assessment, 10% on the 4-7 year graduation rate, and an up to 6 points graduation rate bonus.

Schools that serve students in grades K-12, 1-12, 2-12, 3-12, 4-12, 6-11, etc. are considered hybrid schools and they use both the K-8 and 9-12 models which are calculated independently.

The students in grades K-8 are used to determine the K-8 total points earned and students in grades 9-12 determine the 9-12 total points earned. Total points for hybrid schools are calculated using a weighted average. The weighted average is based on the students enrolled in the K-8 and 9-12 models at the start of the spring testing window.

Schools have until 5 p.m November 15th to appeal their letter grade. Schools who appeal their letter grade will be marked as “UR” (under review) until the State Board of Education takes action on their appeal at the December 9, 2022 meeting. Depending on the outcome of appeals, schools’ letter grades may change.

School letter grades show students’ proficiency growth, more A & B schools State_9-12Alt_Model_FY21
How alternative schools for grades 9-12 school letter grades are determined.

What’s to come

Before adopting the cut scores this year, State Board of Education members shared what they hoped would be taken into consideration for school letter grades in the future.

“I would like the board to take a rigorous step toward reassessing what our letter grades mean and what our students actually know and would like to work with members of this board and other stakeholders throughout the state to get us to a place of what an A actually means for us in this state and to work with Legislators etc., to ensure that they have the resources so that all of our students can reach that point,” said Katherine Haley, State Board of Education public member. “I reluctantly vote yes.”

“For the past 10 to 20 years, the conversation really hasn’t really changed that much. It’s been more about should we weigh proficiency more, what about growth?” said Karla Phillips-Krivickas, State Board of Education public member.

Phillips-Krivickas said she “would love for us to have that broader conversation” around developing competencies and think about how to measure those for assessments and accountability.

In addition, Phillips-Krivickas said, “For instance, I know my community – my daughter has Down syndrome that you know – all the parents I know would love to know what the percentage of the inclusion rate is at their schools, which is something that is part of letter grade calculations and they would love to see that. Another thing we could do is enhance transparency on that side as well.”

School letter grades show students’ proficiency growth, more A & B schools Dr.-Jacqui-Clay
Dr. Jacqui Clay

State Board of Education member and Cochise County School Superintendent Dr. Jacqui Clay said “we need to include people who are in the foxhole, not just people who are outside the box looking in.”

“Educators know what’s going on, we know what our challenges are,” Dr. Clay said.

“It’s very important that stakeholders, but more importantly teachers and educators are involved and that teachers and educators are not talked at and thrown data at. OK,” Dr. Clay said.

“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,” Dr. Clay said.

“We really, really need to be careful with that and make sure all the stakeholders are involved and we get the 360 degree landscape of what’s going on so that we can do the best we can for our students and our teachers,” Dr. Clay said.