Number of failing Arizona schools fell; alternative schools headed the other way

The number of schools getting an F on Arizona’s annual report card
has fallen sharply, going from 49 in 2019 to 24 this year, but the
number of failing alternative schools rose over the same period.

Seven alternative schools, which serve the state’s most at-risk
students, got a grade of F on the state’s annual A-F School Letter
Grades report, up from four in 2019.

The yearly assessment compiles students’ proficiency on standardized testing, graduation rates and other factors to derive a grade for each school. The report,
released in late October, showed that five of the state’s 247 high
schools got a failing grade, along with 12 of the 1,341 kindergarten
through eighth grade schools in the state.

Alternative schools failed at a much higher rate, with seven of the
121 alternative schools getting an F, or 5.8% of alternative schools
compared to just over 1% for traditional schools. Those were the numbers
as of Monday – schools have until December to appeal their grades.

Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne said there’s no one factor at fault for alternative schools that receive a failing grade.

“The schools might be doing a good job with the students that they
have,” Horne said Thursday. “They just have students that are far
behind.”

The unique demands faced by alternative schools are reflected in the
separate criteria used to grade them, with more weight given to
students’ progress to graduation than their test scores. But, even with
the current system, Horne said the standard might benefit from further
improvement.

“It may be that … there should be a different standard,” he said. “We
should be looking at those, because it’s not fair. They (teachers) may
be doing a great job with kids that they don’t bring (to) the point of
proficiency, but they might improve them in a way the public schools
couldn’t.”

That was echoed by Sean Ross, executive director of the Arizona State Board of Education, who said letter grades
do not necessarily represent the performance of schools and their
students, but serve as an indicator of schools that may need additional
state assistance.

“The important thing to understand about any school accountability
model is it doesn’t capture the full gamut of what happens at a school,
doesn’t capture all the beauty and amazing things that are happening at a
school,” Ross said. “There’s always a limit to what any …
accountability model can do.”

Schools that receive a D or F rating are connected with state resources to improve their scores.

“We have improvement teams that visit all the F schools. And so we
have people of the department who will do everything they can to help,”
Horne said.

Ross says it speaks to students’ and teachers’ resilience that so many alternative schools performed well this year.

“The majority of alternative schools are doing phenomenal work,” said
Ross, noting that “these are the students, you know, in need of the
most support in the state.”

Save Our Schools Director Beth Lewis agrees that the scores do no paint a full picture of all the work being done on campuses.

“It’s not reflective of what’s happening in those schools,” Lewis
said. “There are a lot of human elements there that just are not picked
up by test scores.”

Arizona Department of Education spokesperson Rick Medina said in an
email that the grades are an important tool to help parents decide which
school they want their child to attend.

“Arizona has excellent district schools, charter schools and
Empowerment Scholarship Accounts available for parents to ensure that
they can find a school that best meets the needs of their child,”
Medina’s email said.

But Lewis said that, even though Horne likes to point to school
choice as a solution to school problems, there is “a lot of privilege
baked into that.” It may not be an option for all families with children
in failing schools.

“Schools, you know, receiving D and F ratings, typically they’re in
very low socio-economic areas, predominantly areas where kids are really
having a hard time, families are working two to three jobs,” Lewis
said. “Oftentimes younger students are being raised by their older
siblings.

“These are kids that would have been cast off by society had that
alternative school not existed. Are they going to score, you know,
really, really well on these complicated tests?” she asked. “Not
necessarily, but are they getting a poor education? No, they’re getting …
a safe setting where they can learn.”

Ross said that while the report card serves a purpose, it’s important to remember the people behind the numbers.

“So often, you only hear doom and gloom when it comes to schools and
yet, you know, they’re a pillar of our society, you know, teachers
really held up the world during the pandemic and, and we’re … super
proud of our teachers and schools and kiddos and families,” he said.