Behind the letter grades every school received in October is a complex and hotly debated formula that determines which schools are A's, which schools are failing and all the B's, C's and D's in between.
It was a subset of the formula — a small variation in the calculation of an average — that delayed the release of letter grades for two weeks and caused more than 260 school superintendents to protest.
In the end, the board decided to keep the formula as it was, and not make the changes requested by the superintendents.
“There was no contact, whatsoever, with us during that two-week period,” said Tulsa schools Superintendent Keith Ballard. “The board was getting a lot of input information. It was an uncomfortable situation for them. … But what we were told is ‘it's just a bunch of superintendents who don't like change.' I was incredulous.”
Ballard has led a number of drastic reforms in Tulsa Public Schools to turn around failing schools in the district, including Project Schoolhouse, which closed more than 13 schools, required student uniforms throughout the district, and implemented a new teacher evaluation system that has been adopted in school districts throughout the state.
State Education Board Member Brian Hayden said he spent the two-week delay examining the formula and understanding the ins and outs of how grades are awarded.
“I dug in really deep into understanding that component,” Hayden said. “It was a subcomponent of the growth area. And my initial reaction before digging in a little deeper was maybe that area wasn't that big of a deal on having the impact on the overall grades.”
The change requested by superintendents would have led to much higher grades overall and Hayden said that grade inflation would have watered down the evaluation system.
“There's always going to be different sides and different opinions of how we do things,” Hayden said. “Our job is to listen to all the factors and all the sides and try to bring collaboration and communication where it's really necessary.”
The governor's office got involved, reaching out to board members to discuss the issue.
“It was really around all of us trying to really understand what legislative intent, what the rules were, and implementation, really trying to move forward,” Hayden said. “It was helpful.”
Gov. Mary Fallin signed House Bill 1456 in May 2011, implementing the A to F letter grade system for schools. The state Education Department then went through an extensive rule-writing process to implement the system and establish a workable equation for the grades.
Still, the board's decision — which was made with very little conversation during the public meeting — appeared to be an about-face from the previous state Education Board meeting where board members seemed to side with superintendents.
Ballard said he was disappointed that there was no collaboration.
“I don't necessarily fault the board — boards have to have a confidence that the information they are given is accurate,” Ballard said. “I think there are flaws in the formula. I don't believe that it is a totally accurate representation.”
Most of the complaints about the A to F formula have come from the “growth categories.”
Just 33 percent of a school's grade is based on student performance on standardized reading, math, science, social studies and writing exams.
Another 33 percent of the score is based on something called whole school performance, which for elementary schools is based on school attendance. In middle schools and high schools, they consider the dropout rate, graduation rate and the percent of advanced coursework offered.
But it's the two categories that account for the remaining 34 percent that have raised concern — the two growth categories. Of that 34 percent, 17 percent is the growth of all students and 17 percent is the growth of the bottom quarter of students, the lowest performing quartile.
Measuring a student's growth is all the rage in public schools now. It can help account not only for how smart, intelligent, or far ahead a student is when entering a school, but how well the school helps the student improve.
The ideal measure for growth among many education experts is something called the “value-added” rating. Value-added measures how a student performs on a test compared with how they are expected to perform based on expected gains for that student during a school year.
Oklahoma hopes to implement that complicated growth measure in the evaluation of teachers in future years, but the technology isn't there to use that growth measure now.
So instead, student growth is being measured using several methods. A school can earn a “growth point” anytime a student jumps from one category of performance to another.