Does S stand for stupid?

Friday, November 3rd, 2017

When I was in elementary school, our grades were S and U. S stood for satisfactory. You could get an S for satisfactory progress, or the dreaded U, for unsatisfactory. 

One afternoon, my mom sent me next door to show my report card to the neighbors, the Kopeckys. Retired Midwesterners with no kids of their own, they kept close tabs on me and my grade-school adventures. Excited to show off, I was rather dismayed when Mr. Kopecky took one look and said, "What are all these S marks? Does S stand for stupid?"

Of course he was just pulling my pigtails, but I was having none of it. "No, sir!" I insisted. "I am a GOOD student!" Then I explained at length just how good I was until my mom called me home for dinner. It became a favorite running joke as I got older.

Undoubtedly many of Arizona's public schools had their own - and much less tender - version of this story after the state released its school letter grades last month. Approximately 20 percent of schools have appealed their letter grades, including some that are recognized as tops in the nation.

That's not to suggest everyone else is pleased, and many are calling foul. Columnist Bob Robb's recent opinion piece labeled the letter grade system a monumental failure. The state superintendent of public instruction has called the letter grade system "too complex." Leading business groups have called for immediate change and simplification (somewhat ironically, to be figured out by a consultant). Worst of all, school administrators have called the results "devastating" to their teachers and communities.

Amid the calls for reform, the Arizona State Board of Education, whose current members largely inherited this system, has initiated a review. While they wait for the technicians, statisticians and psychometricians to do their latest thing with the numbers, this might be a good time for the rest of us to call the question.

To what end?

It's important to remember why the letter grades were created in the first place: to give parents good information about their schools. The school achievement profiles mandated in statute provide some key performance data. But efforts to aggregate that data into a single rating - like the school report card - does not provide good information. In some cases, it might be giving misleading information.

Take San Luis High School, for example. This high school sends three of every four students on to college after high school. Their college completion rates beat the state average, yet they were assigned a D letter grade. Arcadia High School, with more than two-thirds of their students enrolled in college beyond high school and a nearly 50 percent college completion rate, has been assigned a C. You can reference the various data on high school performance here that shows the discord among the various measures.

Parents and the public can easily think the school letter grades are a reflection of the school's overall quality. People assume that an A school will do a better job than a C or D school in what they offer and how they prepare students to succeed. In practice, school letter grades are heavily weighted to their students' achievement on the AzMERIT test, the state's test of minimum proficiency.

Unlike its predecessor test, AIMS, high school diplomas are not withheld for failure; college scholarships are not awarded for passage. Universities and community colleges don't use the AzMERIT test for admissions decisions. We don't use the test for evaluating student preparedness for college whatsoever.  

This makes rating the quality of schools based on AzMERIT performance a bit like rating a dining experience based on whether the restaurant passed its health inspection.

It also is turning the state's accountability program into a big compliance exercise - an arcane and expensive one at that. In less than 10 years, Arizona has gone through old standards, new standards, old tests, new tests, an old grading system and a new grading system, and has spent tens of millions of dollars along the way. That's not even counting the tens of millions of dollars spent on repairing the data system at the state department of education just to help it properly count students, pay schools and provide longitudinal data on educational outcomes.

With overall K-12 performance flat amidst a tight labor market and growing demands for a more skilled workforce, the stakes for students are high. As we work to reform the accountability system and the availability of information, we cannot lose sight of real education reform - the kind that actually increases learning outcomes for students.

The performance of K-12 and higher education is inextricably linked. As the State Board of Education takes up its work to review the school letter grades, we will offer whatever assistance is needed. We also will explore the possibility of a joint meeting with them, the State Board of Charter Schools, community colleges and other appointed and elected education leaders across the P-20 system to discuss system-wide performance and what we might collectively contribute to the state's efforts to provide data, information, and performance measures that matter to families, teachers and the public.

Now that the state has adopted a goal to increase the education of working adults, a joint conversation would promote greater alignment of activity and shared responsibilities across the P-20 education system, and hopefully, spur greater student success, which is what we are all really after.