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.
Students are sorted into four categories based on performance: unsatisfactory, limited knowledge, satisfactory and advanced.
For every student who improves in the course of a year from one category to another, the school earns a point.
Schools also are awarded points for students who maintain the proficient or advanced category for two consecutive years.
“If you remain proficient or advanced for two years in a row, then you get a growth point because it was decided that you were gaining knowledge,” said Maridyth McBee, assistant state superintendent for accountability and assessment.
Finally, schools were awarded growth points if a student in the limited knowledge or unsatisfactory category improved more on tests than the average improvement of all other students.
That was the sticking point for many superintendents. They said the average should be a true average that also takes into consideration students who regressed, thus lowering the bar that a student had to get over to earn a growth point for the school.
The growth measure is intended to recognize the work that lower performing schools do. A school's student population may come in at a lower level of academic performance — due to external factors like poverty, high mobility, single-parent households, foster care and homelessness — yet the school still could be considered high performing because of how quickly students progress in a good environment with excellent teachers and administrators.
No child left behind
Before schools were awarded letter grades, they were awarded points on a scale from 0 to 1,500.
Under the old system — the Academic Performance Index — 227 schools were considered in “need of improvement” the 2010-2011 school year. The needs improvement list is a federal designation of schools that had failed to make enough progress in the course of a year to meet requirements.
The state itself didn't meet the threshold for adequate yearly progress in the 2010 to 2011 school year. The expectations for API scores had steadily been increasing over the years until every school would have been expected to score a perfect 1,500 on the scale in 2014 — a mandate that came with President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind legislation.
Under the new system — the A to F grading scale — 10 schools received F's and 138 received D's.
There were 160 schools that received A's, 841 schools with B's and 594 schools with C's.
“Part of the history I've heard and criticisms around education in the state of Oklahoma is that we've watered down things so much that really we are behind national averages even though we think the state is doing great because of test scores,” said McBee.
She said the letter grading system was established to correlate back to where the state is at in academic performance.
“If we make it so that the hurdle is so easy to get over, what are we really accomplishing?” McBee asked.
The letter grades, much like API scores, are composed of several factors, not just student performance on standardized tests.
But to complicate things further, the letter grades will not be used to satisfy the No Child Left Behind Act. Another classification of schools, one that districts have seen and will be released sometime in mid-December, is being used instead.
McBee said the A to F classification is an easier designation for the community to understand than the new measure for No Child Left Behind.
Edmond Public Schools Superintendent David Goin said he finds it ironic that under the No Child Left Behind Act they have several schools that are labeled as the highest performers — Reward Schools. But under the A to F grading scale that is being sent out to parents and publicized, many of those schools received B's.
“We have nine elementary schools that are referred to as Reward Schools,” Goin said. “This year, of those Reward Schools only three made A's and the reward schools are in the top four percent of achievement.”
Goin said the biggest issue in the calculation is the growth component, particularly in the calculation of growth among the lowest quartile.
He said that it is not in fact an analysis of the bottom quarter of students, but only those students in the unsatisfactory and limited knowledge categories. He said in some Edmond Public Schools that is only 15 to 20 students out of hundreds.
“You're talking about children who, it could be questionable about whether they should be taking the test or not,” Goin said. “Either we have very, very weak elementary education across the state, or there's something amiss with the formula.
“What we've ended up with is an extremely large number of B's in the state and a dearth of A's, and so the span of achievement levels even among your B schools is tremendous,” he said.