Rebecca Gau, Director of the Governor’s Office of Education Innovation, talks to Sonoran Living about the state’s new ranking system. Scroll down to see her answer viewer questions.

The Arizona Department of Education has released its new letter grading system for ranking schools in an effort to hold them more accountable for student improvement. The new system gives “A” through “F” ratings and uses a different formula based on student performance and growth than the original “legacy” labels, which included Underperforming, Performing, Performing Plus, Highly Performing and Excelling. The legacy labels will be phased out by 2013.

According to the Arizona Department of Education, earning an “A” grade under the new system is tougher than earning an “Excelling” label, and more reflective of the school’s total performance. Under the legacy labels, schools are rated mainly on the percentage of students who passed the Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards (AIMS) exam. Under the new letter grades system, half the rating will be based on the percentage of students who improve their scores on AIMS, regardless of whether they pass the exam. The new formula puts more weight on how much students improve and less on their level of performance.

The change essentially means the state is redefining what makes a school outstanding. The goal is to motivate schools to challenge average and advanced students to improve and to recognize schools that help lagging students catch up. For example, a school that typically has been an “Excelling” school may end up with a “B” because that school did not show enough academic growth among its students. All schools will receive both a letter grade as well as the legacy label until 2013 when the legacy labels will be phased out.

“The new school rating system will give Arizona a better picture of how our student’s are truly performing. It takes into account not only the AIMS scores but also individual student level growth compared to a student’s academic peers over time,” said Rebecca Gau, Director of the Governor’s Office of Education Innovation who helped develop the new grading system. “This will also help our schools understand what they need to do to improve.”

A total of 1,501 schools were graded. Small schools (those with fewer than 125 students), schools with only kindergarten through second grade, and alternative schools did not get a letter grade this time. State officials are still devising a formula that can fairly measure academic growth in these schools.

Only half of Arizona’s 524 charter schools received letter grades. Many of those smaller schools that did not receive the letter grades this year will be phased in later. In addition, several charter schools are alternative schools designated by Arizona statutes to take students who are juvenile delinquents. They are held to different accountability standards.