NAU Department of Educational Leadership Rural Schools Resource Center (NAURRC)

Hot Topics and Current Research

What do Letter Grades Tell Us?

By Mr. Sean E. Rickert, Superintendent, Pima USD & ARSA

What do Letter Grades tell us?
Nothing. Next Question.
But seriously, for education leaders there may be something to be learned from understanding the history of letter grades, what they can tell us about the quality of schools and what they mean. They don’t mean what people think they mean, and that is why they really don’t mean much. When people think an indicator means one thing, and it doesn’t mean what they think, the real meaning is likely to be lost.

Understanding education policies in Arizona is remarkably simple. Arizona is a parental choice state. Every parent of a school age child decides where to send their child for educational services. Most choose a traditional public school. Many choose a charter school, and some select to homeschool their children. Lastly, a few choose private schools. In 2000, as part of a proposal to boost funding for schools through an education sales tax the voters enacted an accountability system. This created a set of tools to assess school quality and guide parents as they made choices within the educational marketplace. Schools were labeled, “Highly Effective” to “Failing” based on how well students performed on the state standardized test. In 2010 the descriptive labels were exchanged for letter grades A through F. Grades were based on the percentage of students testing well on the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards (AIMS). The percentage of students passing was coupled with the percentage of students achieving a year's progress. Emphasis was also given to subgroups of students including the disabled, the poor, the non-English speakers, and the poor performers. In 2015, Arizona transitioned from AIMS to a new test more closely aligned with the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Where 70% of students tested “Proficient” on AIMS only 30% passed the new Arizona Measure of Educational Readiness Informing Teaching (AzMERIT). This dramatic shift created a need for a new system for measuring school quality, so parents could understand where they should send their children.

Pima Unified School District Superintendent Se

Mr. Sean E. Rickert
Superintendent of Pima USD & ARSA President-Elect

What do Letter Grades Tell Us? Takeaways

1. An understanding of the history of letter grades is necessary to understand the meaning of letter grades.

2. Governor Ducey gave the task of creating a need for a new system for measuring school quality to the State Board of Education, and they formed an Ad Hoc committee to revamp the way we measure school performance. The State Board of Education included traditional public schools, charters, and education policy experts on the committee.

3. The committee’s mission is to create a simple example, a valid measure of school quality that meets state and federal law requirements.

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