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My Turn: Arizona letter grades punish schools for teaching poor kids

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My Turn: Rich schools in Arizona are 10 times more likely to get an “A” than poor schools. How does that measure quality?

I read Republic reporter Ricardo Cano’s article on a Monday morning before work, and as a public school teacher, I can’t stop thinking about it. It’s about our state’s new school letter grade system, which I can describe with no better word than “unjust.”

Why, you may ask? This simple statistic tells the whole sordid tale:

“Fifty-two percent of Arizona elementary schools that had a ‘low’ percentage of students eligible for free or reduced lunch prices — an indicator of student poverty — are expected to receive an ‘A’ grade, according to a state Department of Education analysis. That same analysis found only 4 percent of schools with ‘high’ percentages of students on free or reduced lunch would get an A.'”

We rank quality according to poverty

That difference is stunning — the higher socioeconomic schools are literally 10 times more likely to get As than high poverty schools. As a state, we have essentially chosen to rank our school quality based on poverty, despite the passage of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and the flexibility to include far more information about the supports our schools provide.

Instead, according to the article, “AzMERIT test scores will determine 90 percent of elementary schools’ grades.” Really?

Do any of us believe that the elementary school experience is almost entirely reduced to a single score on a single day? What about the needs of the whole child? What about art, music and PE? Time to play and socialize? Counseling and therapeutic services? Libraries or cafeterias, perhaps? Class size or the availability of technology?

Tests have their place in education

Now, don’t get me wrong. I actually am of the belief that test scores can be incredibly useful instruments to assess learning and better tailor instruction. I would even go so far as to say that a certain amount of standardized testing is indispensable in helping determine how our students and our teaching practices compare to other districts, states or countries.

Furthermore, I believe that all districts have a moral obligation to look at student learning outcomes and do everything in our power to elevate them.

ALLHANDS: School letter grades are meaningless. Let’s ditch them

But to design a school grading system that tells our entire society that high-poverty schools – along with their students and teachers – are failures, while low-poverty schools are paragons of excellence, is to completely ignore the significant differences in home life and home support that those two populations enjoy, on average.

And the most infuriating aspect is that this very system was designed at the behest of those who at every turn have undermined the very supports that might have closed the gaps: our legislators.

What failing schools say about us

So yes, we can all look at the letter grades soon to be assigned to us, and the data they are based on, and chart courses of improvement. And our students deserve that.

But as we do so, we should always remember what decades of educational research have clearly shown: that non-academic factors (e.g., class, race or the presence of books in the home) are far more predictive of the assessment outcomes of any student than the impact an individual teacher makes in a given year.

When schools receive Ds or Fs, in most cases it is the society at large that has failed them. And much of the responsibility for that is outside our control — except come November 2018.

Derek Born is an English teacher at Coconino High School in Flagstaff and is the president of the Flagstaff Education Association. Share your thoughts at flagprez@gmail.com.

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