What’s in an A?

Nicole Wolff Assessment, Education, Education Policy, Elementary

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In Arizona, school letter grades come out in the fall. I found out my school earned an A grade in October 2018, at a time when I was completely absorbed in my state’s election. I’m an Arizona teacher and I was working hard to defeat Proposition 305 (a school voucher expansion) and get pro-education candidates elected to our state legislature.

I was excited for the A rating, but didn’t really have time to reflect on it. The election ended, holidays began and despite the school wide celebration, social media declarations, and the new banner flying in front of my school, I never did take a moment to think about the A rating and what it meant.

Fast forward one year and we are about to find out if we maintained our A label. Letter grades should be released to the public in early November.

For the past year, my school has been doggedly focused on keeping our A status. We have talked about reducing our minimally proficient students and increasing our highly proficient students. We brainstormed ways to reclassify our English Language Learners. We’ve asked ourselves how to increase the rigor for our high achievers so they still show growth on AzMerit. How can we help our special education students increase their pass rate on the test?

You see, in Arizona the way a school earns its letter grade is largely decided by the AzMerit assessment. This one test, in one moment of time, determines the label our schools are given.

We are feeling fairly confident. Although we haven’t yet received our letter grade, we have seen our data. Based on our analysis of the numbers, we predict we will maintain our A label.

My leadership team is excited and proud with some relief mixed in. Being an A school is a big deal in our state; local news outlets, social media, state politicians, and district administration never let us forget it. To really drive the point home, our governor implemented results based funding in 2017, connecting extra money to our letter grades.

As thrilled as I may be to celebrate the success and hard work of our students and staff, my excitement is tempered by my deeply held belief that there are better ways to evaluate schools.

Is our current system in Arizona the best way to measure school success? As much as politicians like to assert that the labeling system is well rounded and measures more than just test results, I find that to be untrue.

Of the 100 points available to K-8 schools to earn toward their letter grade, the vast majority is directly connected to AzMerit. Proficiency on AzMerit accounts for 30 points while growth on the test accounts for 50 points.

A category called Acceleration Readiness can potentially earn schools 10 points. This category has many subcategories worth a few points each, most of which are also based on AzMerit. A few categories that are not reliant on AzMerit are chronic absenteeism and special education inclusion, each worth 2 points.Growth shown by English Language Learners is worth 10 points. While it is not dependent entirely upon AzMerit, it is dependent upon another one time test, AZELLA.

When all is said and done, more than 90% of the points available to a K-8 school come from a high stakes test, with AzMerit representing more than 80%.

There are 180 school days in a year. One hundred eighty days of learning, successes, frustrations, and growth happening within the walls of each and every school. Reducing the significance of that work down to one test doesn’t seem like the best way to measure a school’s accomplishments.

There are other factors that lead to student success besides standardized tests. In no particular order, I would love to see some of the following considered:

  • Student culture
  • Number of arts and music classes offered
  • Teacher turnover rate
  • Foreign language as an opportunity
  • Number of counselors
  • Teacher working conditions
  • Student leadership opportunities
  • Family engagement

This is not an all-inclusive list, just a sampling of ways we can assess a school’s value beyond a standardized test. I believe our priorities are made visible by what we choose to inspect. When our state only inspects the high stakes test results, it diminishes the value of student and teacher work down to a single moment in time.

This isn’t a radical idea. A few states are already looking for ways to evaluate school effectiveness using measures other than standardized tests. Education professionals know there are better ways to measure a school’s impact on student achievement. Hopefully, those in decision-making positions will begin to see the value in looking beyond the confines of a high stakes test.

Until then, I’ll celebrate all the hard work and dedication that happens in my building. Not just on the day we receive our letter grade, but every day. Because real growth is happening each and every day on my campus and it deserves to be celebrated.

What ideas do you have for measuring the effectiveness of a school?


I'm a California native. However, I've spent my entire career teaching in Arizona public schools, as well as instructing at the university level. My passion for teacher advocacy and support led me to become an Instructional Coach in 2013. I am currently a coach at a K-8 school in Goodyear and love the students and teachers I get to work with every day. I have spent my career actively involved in instructional improvement, chairing many committees including Response to Intervention, Academic Accountability, and Professional Development Committees. I was named Dysart Hero (teacher of the year) in 2012. I was honored to serve as a 2017-18 Arizona Hope Street Teacher Fellow. I earned a Bachelor’s in Elementary Education and a Master’s in Education/ESL from Ottawa University. I am a National Board Certified Teacher. I’m also endorsed as an Early Childhood Specialist, Reading Specialist, and Gifted Specialist. In my free time, I enjoy reading, camping, and spending time with my family.

Comments 6

  1. Jen Hudson

    This spoke to me on a cellular level. I taught at an ‘A’ school for many years. The pressure to maintain that A is intense. I remember pouring over data, of principals coming into department meetings to tell us we were only X points away from a B, and the only way to ensure that A status was to get better. We were given A pins and told to wear them on our ID badges. Our school made a big ‘to do’ about it, but no one understood how we got there. Once we poured over the data, we realized how the socioeconomic disparity in our large district was mirrored in our letter grades. Then it got really real. Your list brings up excellent points that would help see the school as a whole, but how do we measure family engagement? Do we weight music and art equally with PE? So many big philosophical questions arise!

    1. Post
      Nicole Wolff

      You are so right – it does open up a philosophical conversation! I, for one, am ready for that conversation. I would love to begin looking at schools and student achievement more holistically.

  2. Misha

    As I frustratingly listen to adults talk about my districts Bond election, your list comes to mind. The people quote letters like they mean something. I want more for our schools and students.

    1. Post
      Nicole Wolff

      I agree with you. There has to be a better way of holding schools accountable for student growth and achievement. I want more focus on programs and structures that promote students’ overall success, not just AzMerit.

  3. Susan Collins

    Nicole, I appreciate so much that you include the non-tested and non-testable facets of a good school. All of those matter to a much greater degree than they are given credit for. Our current “grading” system treats students like machines instead of the unique and developing humans that they are. I love this blog!

  4. Jess Ledbetter

    The state letter grading system baffles me. Research shows that a teacher can only control 10% of a student’s test score (according to Berliner/Glass in 50 Myths & Lies that Threaten to Destroy America’s Public Schools). The majority of student test scores are simply the result of their socio-economic status, community and family resources, their race and native language, and their biological ability to think and reason. Sadly, these tests continue to discriminate against minority groups with biased testing items! Using school letter grades to shame schools and celebrate others makes no sense to me. And results based funding is insidious. We need to eliminate this practice of naming and shaming schools in Arizona. A school can’t be summarized in a letter grade. Years ago, I worked in a Title 1 school that proudly moved from a “C school” to a “B school.” We had a massive celebration. We had good staff retention. My colleagues were as dedicated as ever and got better at their craft all year long. The next fall, we dropped back to a C school. I still remember the pain that caused our staff. High stakes testing is not an effective way to measure student learning or teacher/school success. Regardless, I hope you retain your A label! Every school deserves recognition for their accomplishments. I hope to see more broad ideas for evaluating schools in the future in this state!

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