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Published in Print: October 30, 2002, as Few Schools Earn Arizona's Highest Mark

Few Schools Earn Arizona's Highest Mark

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How many public schools are excelling in Arizona? Not many, if the state's new ratings system for schools is a good gauge.

Only two schools in the entire state earned the top designation under Arizona's school ratings system unveiled Oct. 15—in a place that's home to 1,800 regular public schools and about 500 charter schools.

The first release of the school ratings comes as most states are grappling with how to judge schools as required by the federal "No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001.

Arizona's minuscule number of top-rated schools has prompted state leaders to call for changes in the law that created the system. But federal officials are warning states against lowering their standards, even if the results are embarrassing for now.

"Unfortunately, some states have lowered the bar of expectations to hide the low performance of their schools. And a few others are discussing how they can ratchet down their standards in order to remove schools from their lists of low-performers," U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige wrote in a letter to state superintendents on Oct. 23.

He called state leaders who might take such steps "the enemies of equal justice and equal opportunity."

Arizona can't be accused of making its numbers look good, however. Nearly one in seven public schools—including some charters—scored in the lowest category, "underperforming."

A majority of the state's schools earned ratings somewhere between the highest category of "excelling" and the lowest group, or "underperforming." One-fourth of the schools made the second-best category, "improving," while almost one-third earned the "maintaining performance" designation.

To earn the highest rating, schools must have an average of 90 percent of their students scoring at state standards in all subjects, and for high schools, dropout rates cannot exceed 6 percent. The dropout rate is especially significant because Arizona has what is deemed one of the nation's most honest reporting systems for graduation rates—estimated at 70 percent statewide.

"The consensus is the criteria are too tough," said Tara Teichgraeber, the spokeswoman for the Arizona Department of Education.

The job of determining where Arizona goes from here will be up to whoever succeeds state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jamie Molera, who lost his election bid in the Republican primary. But some education advocacy groups are pushing for the legislature to change the criteria for determining how schools can earn the highest rating under the system.

More than 250 schools didn't receive ratings at all. They're either too small by state standards, serve special populations such as students who have been incarcerated, or their testing data were incomplete.

A portion of those schools are set to receive ratings Nov. 1 under different criteria.

Some leaders of education groups in the state were simply relieved that the ratings, part of the Arizona Learns school accountability law passed by the legislature this year, didn't label more schools as terrible.

"I'm very pleased that we're doing as well as we are," said Panfilo Contreras, the executive director of the Arizona School Boards Association. "The general expectation was that a lot of our schools were failing, and they were not."

Grading the Ratings

Stan Paz, the superintendent of the 63,000-student Tucson school district, said he supports the new ratings system and will use it to urge improvements in his city's schools. Changes to the accountability law are in order, though, he said.

Other Tucson educators and parents had a wide variety of reactions to the ratings. Some traditionally high-scoring schools were disappointed with their low ratings, Mr. Paz said. Other schools got "wake-up calls" on their need to improve, while some schools that have tended to struggle showed enough improvement to earn decent ratings, he said.

The quirks in the new system must be addressed if parents are to count on the ratings in the future, he added. The test-score and graduation- rate thresholds for an "excelling" designation must be eased, Mr. Paz argued. But, he added, the deficiencies in the law are more like wrinkles than reasons for fundamental changes.

Some education leaders contend that too much is happening for schools to see marked gains by next year. Besides the release of the new ratings, schools face a February deadline for filing school improvement plans with the state and another round of testing next spring.

"To suggest that you could turn around a facility within a year's time is pretty significant," said Harry Garewal, a school board member in the Phoenix Union High School District, which has about 23,000 students.

Ms. Teichgraeber said state officials were open to discussion on changing the dates.

Vol. 22, Issue 9, Pages 23,26

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