by David Safier
I'm not often in agreement with the Arizona Charter Schools Association, a well funded group whose purpose is to promote charter schools in the state, but for once, we're in sync. We both have problems with the current A-F grading system for Arizona public schools, district and charter.
In a detailed, scholarly analysis, the Center for Student Achievement, a part of the AZ Charter Schools Association, shows how the current school grading system is heavily weighted to make schools with high income students come out near the top and schools with low income students come out near the bottom. The reason is, half of a school's grade is based on the average student AIMS score, which tends to raise with students' family incomes. The other half is based on student growth — the rise in students' scores from one year to the next — which is far less economically biased. Unfortunately, the growth portion doesn't counterbalance the economic bias built into the schools' average AIMS scores.
The study doesn't recommend abandoning school grades. It suggests a revised grading system that relies on a number of variables related to student growth. It's complicated, and I don't know enough about the numbers to evaluate it, but it certainly would create a more level playing field than what we have now.
Just to make sure I wasn't being taken in, I emailed Dr. David Garcia, an ASU education prof who is exploring a run for AZ Superintendent of Education, to ask his opinion of the study. He said it's genuinely research-based and comes to similar conclusions he has reached, because it follows the data to its logical conclusion.
I haven't talked with the folks at the Charter Schools Association, but here's why I think they put together the study. Some charter schools target low achieving students, and even if they're successful, they're likely to get low state grades. Edge High School, which Tim Steller wrote about recently, is a good example of a charter school that looks like it's doing a good job with its students but has earned a D grade from the state. If charter schools are to serve diverse populations of students — if they don't all serve a selective group of top-performing students like BASIS and Great Hearts charters — some of them are going to look bad because of the populations they serve, regardless of the quality of the school. The same, of course, is true of traditional public schools which serve students from low income families. So we have a similar interest in creating a fairer evaluation of school success.