By Cecilia Chan & Wayne Schutsky, GSN Stsff Writers

Only two public schools in Gilbert earned a “C” in academic performance and need some improvement while the rest received an A or a B for being “excellent” or “highly proficient,” respectively, according to the latest preliminary state report card.

The Arizona Department of Education releases the letter grades each year in October, to give parents a barometer to compare schools and decide which is best for their child.

Among Higley Unified School District’s 13 schools, nine received an “A” grade while four received a “B.”

“Credit goes to our teachers and administrators that worked hard to ensure that the state standards were consistently taught with the appropriate levels of rigor,” said Sherry Richards, Higley’s director of elementary education.

Richards said data was systematically used to inform decision-making regarding instruction, targeted intervention and enrichment opportunities for students.

“Last year, we intentionally focused on providing specific, timely and understandable feedback,” she said.

The much-larger Gilbert Public School with 39 campuses saw 19 schools with “A” grades, 18 with “B” grades and two – Mesquite Junior High and Settler’s Point Elementary earning a “C.” Schools have until Oct. 25 to appeal their letter grade.

“I am proud of all of our district staff in their ongoing, daily contributions to our district and each student,” said Sheila Rogers, president of the Gilbert Public School District Governing Board. “We will continue to analyze the data received as our district ethos is one that is rooted in ongoing improvement.”

The A-F letter grade system is mandated by state and federal laws to measure school performance.

Five factors go into the grades, including student academic growth from year to year, high school graduation rates and AzMerit scores, the annual assessment test that makes up 90 percent of the grade.

For 2017-18, the Arizona State Board of Education after feedback from educators, national experts and the public made changes that enhanced the grades, including providing bonus points for science proficiency, modifying the academic growth calculation to award points for average or expected growth for all students and awarding points to schools that are among the most successful in the state in chronic absenteeism and third-grade English language arts proficiency.

Under the previous grading system, Gilbert in 2016-17 had four schools that received a “C” grade – Desert Ridge Junior High, Houston Elementary, Harris Elementary and Gilbert Junior High, which closed last year due to low enrollment. In the new grading, Desert Ridge Junior, Houston and Harris all received “Bs.”

While the letter grades serve their purpose, they don’t provide the whole picture of a school, according to Rogers, a retired educator of 47 years that included  21 years as principal of Gilbert Elementary.

“Assessments for any kind of organization or business can provide valuable insight,” Rogers said. “However, schools, much like those organizations or businesses, are complex organizations and therefore, it is difficult to reduce or synthesize that complexity into a single-letter grade.

“Specifically, while a letter grade can be a useful tool to provide guidance on what is working well and what can be improved, it does not take into account the exceptional culture our staff, students and families have created at each of our schools,” he said.

Audrey Beardsley, a professor at Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, cautioned parents against putting too much emphasis on AzMerit test scores and school-letter grades.

Beardsley said parents choosing schools should look at a host of variables beyond letter grades, including disciplinary data, attendance records, school safety and per pupil expenditures.

Beardsley served on a technical advisory committee for the state Education Board tasked with interpreting data and advising the board on the A-F letter grades and other board policies.

Committee members, appointed to three-year terms, began meeting in October 2017 but was disbanded earlier this year after less than six months.

Beardsley said some committee members suggested the board take a more holistic approach to grading schools that looked at factors beyond test scores, including social services, safety and programs for specialized populations offered on campus.

However, the “state wanted to stick with the easy answer test-score approach,” she said.

Beardsley said the risk in relying on test scores is that they are often skewed and it is difficult to get all students to take the tests seriously – meaning negative performance on an AzMerit test is not always correlated with a lack of understanding of a given subject.

She said current federal education policy under The Every Student Succeeds Act puts the onus of accountability on administrators and teachers – not on students.

That leaves teachers and schools scrambling to motivate students to prepare for a test that does not affect their grades and they may or may not care about, she said.

Gilbert Public Schools is in the process of implementing an incentive that includes awarding students in grades 7-12 who do well in AzMerit with a 10 percent bump in their corresponding second-semester grade. Higley implemented a similar plan last school year.

Rogers said the district’s instructional leaders and teachers are making great strides with students and each year officials reflect on past practices as they analyze the data.

“We have made a commitment to being intentional with best first instruction for all students, as well as focusing on increasing collaboration through our professional learning communities and data teams,” she said.“Going forward we will continue with this best practice, creating opportunities for strategic support and professional development.”

To view the 2018 preliminary letter grades, go to azsbe.az.gov/f-school-letter-grades