An ad hoc coalition of superintendents from across the state gathered Thursday morning to express frustration and concern with the Oklahoma Education Department.
The group said a mathematical formula used to give more than 1,750 school sites in the state an A-F letter grade is flawed and does not reflect teacher quality.
“As superintendents from rural, urban and suburban districts, we express no confidence in the current methodology utilized,” Tulsa Union Superintendent Cathy Burden said.
Dozens of superintendents crowded into a conference room Thursday morning in the office of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association near the Capitol. Dozens more didn't attend the meeting but gave their support.
In all, more than 80 superintendents supported the meeting.
Gov. Mary Fallin said communities need the A-F school grades to encourage accountability, transparency and reform.
“I'm disappointed that a small group of superintendents continue to cling to the status quo by staging last-minute political stunts designed to sabotage a solid reform,” Fallin said.
The group represents about 15 percent of state superintendents but nearly half of the state's students.
State Education Department spokesman Damon Gardenhire said the meeting was immature.
“We've met with districts many times, heard their concerns and answered their questions,” Gardenhire said. “To hold a news conference a few days before the report cards are set to be released is nothing more than political posturing meant to derail implementation of a law that was passed in 2011.”
The new A-F grading system replaces the previous assessment tool. The Academic Performance Index gave schools a score on a 1, 500-point scale mandated by No Child Left Behind, which no longer applies to Oklahoma because of a federal waiver granted to the state this year.
Each individual school site will receive a letter grade. Schools also will receive letter grades in five subject areas: reading, math, science, social studies and writing.
Letter grades also will be given to each district and the state overall.
Burden, the Tulsa Union superintendent, said the equation used to determine school grades is “flawed and biased.”
For example, what is considered “average” for student improvement from one year to the next isn't really an average, Burden said.
The average is only calculated using scores from students who improve — not those who stay the same or fall behind.
Also, certain parts of the formula are unfairly weighted to count against schools that serve poor students, she said. For example, she said absenteeism and mobility negatively affect a school's score, while factors like school climate and parent involvement are only considered bonus points.
Norman Superintendent Joe Siano said his community expects accountability but that the grades don't give that. Siano said the formula is biased against schools with poor students.
“The A-F grading system was meant to represent to the parents the quality of instruction, not represent those populations within those schools,” he said as superintendents behind him nodded.
Edmond Superintendent David Goin cited one part of the formula that focuses on the lowest-performing students. For each school, 17 percent of the overall grade is the achievement of the bottom one-fourth of students who scored “limited knowledge” or “unsatisfactory” on state exams.
“If you define that very small population, you're talking about children who have a variety of serious needs — the most at-risk of the at-risk students,” he said. “It's really unfair to the circumstances in which those children live and to the teachers who work so hard.”
Feeling left out
State workers haven't taken educators' concerns into account, Tulsa Superintendent Keith Ballard said. School workers and communities were hopeful for the simplicity that an A-F could provide, but the formula used to determine those grades is complex and skewed, he said.
Ballard said the Education Department has been slow to respond, if there's a response at all.
“From the very beginning, we have sought an audience with state department officials so we could have input,” Ballard said.
The skewed grading equation is designed to unfairly embarrass schools, Ballard said.
“In Tulsa, we have achievement problems, and we know what they are,” Ballard said. “And we've worked around the clock. ... We support accountability. We support measurement of performance. It just needs to be done in a fair, concise, easily understandable manner.”
Districts had the chance to have a say in the process, but few took it, Gardenhire said. The rules for the process were first proposed in February. Since then, state workers have “exhaustively communicated with districts,” including offering personal assistants, technical training and a series of guidebooks.
“Districts should have nothing to hide and should embrace the transparency and accountability offered by this reform,” Gardenhire said. “Parents have a right to know this information. These report cards are clear-cut, straight forward and fair.”
Though letter grades are something people will understand, Oklahoma City Superintendent Karl Springer said districts are concerned the grades won't reflect what parents really want to know.
“We're struggling and working every day to improve,” Springer said. “It's just as important for us. We want it to be an accurate measurement of what performance is in the schools. Somehow we've lost the guiding principle that the Legislature had and that was to talk about the quality of instruction. And the quality of instruction somewhere in this process was totally left out of the calculation.”
State board power
The superintendents said they don't plan any legal action.
So the one recourse left would be for the state Board of Education to not validate the grades at the board's meeting Monday, which would delay the release of the information.
“The state Board of Education has an opportunity and hopefully (will) see it as a responsibly to listen to the complaints and problems that we have brought forward,” said Burden, the Tulsa Union superintendent.
That doesn't look likely.
“We're moving forward,” said Gardenhire, the Education Department spokesman. “And the report cards will be released to all citizens on Monday.”