Earlier this month, the Arizona Board of Education presented its preliminary grades for the state’s schools, which assesses schools on an A-F scale in an effort to promote accountability and growth.

Except for Sedona Red Rock High School, which earned a B, Sedona-Oak Creek School District’s West Sedona School, Big Park Community School and Sedona Red Rock Junior High School garnered C’s across the board. This is the first year schools are being graded based on results of the AzMERIT standardized achievement test, which students started taking three years ago.

AzMERIT results constitute a vast majority of how the letter grade is calculated — here’s the breakdown for K-8 schools:

  • 50 percent is based on student proficiency, or how well they did on the test.
  • 30 percent is based on student growth, or how much they’ve improved since AzMERIT was first implemented.
  • 10 percent is based on acceleration and readiness, which takes into consideration factors like attendance and the growth of subgroups of students, including those who are economically disadvantaged.
  • 10 percent is based on English language learner growth and proficiency, or how ELL students are doing. This portion can be discounted if a school doesn’t have enough ELL students, so the grade would be calculated on a base of 90 points instead of 100.

The breakdown for high schools is skewed slightly less toward straight test scores, adding a college readiness category:

  • 30 percent is based on student proficiency. n 20 percent is based on student growth.
  • 20 percent is based on college and career readiness.
  • 20 percent is based on the high school’s graduation rate.
  • 10 percent is based on ELL growth and proficiency.

While reactions to SOCSD’s grades are positive, opinions on new system are mixed. District administration, including principals of each school, commended their students and teachers for their hard work, but they also expressed that the grade relies too heavily on test scores to measure a school, when other factors contribute to a student’s success.

“Our students will continue to make individual improvements that we celebrate. We will continue to have students who are well above grade level, at grade level and below, because we are a public school that welcomes all children,” said Debbie Jones, BPCS principal. “We will continue to improve, but because the criteria for the state ‘grade’ is nebulous and a moving target, who knows what the ‘grade’ will be from year to year.”

The challenge, district communications director Jennifer Chilton said, is this is a brand-new system with some imperfections that need to be worked out. Notably, the AzMERIT is voluntary, meaning fewer students in general take it, which could skew a school’s overall results; some of the grading criteria also favor larger and urban schools in awarding percentage points.

“It’s a call to action to rural superintendents to stand up for themselves,” Chilton said. During this period between when the preliminary grades were announced and the Board of Education begins compiling data for its final grade, schools are sending feedback to the board to consider in improving the system.

The board will announce final grades in February.

In the meantime, it’s business as usual for schools, especially in Sedona, where preparing students for the AzMERIT is just one aspect of teaching. In a cycle of what the district calls continuous growth, schools consider AzMERIT scores as well as a host of other factors in curriculum development and educational strategies.

“We are excited to finally have the data and use that to enhance the initiatives in progress identified by our comprehensive needs assessment through AdvancED,” said Darrin Karuzas, principal at Red Rock High, citing the district’s accreditation goals. But he added that there’s more to the high school than AzMERIT results — like its  extracurricular programs, athletics and community outreach efforts.

“Bottom line is that we are very proud of the opportunities we can provide for our students, both in and out of the classroom, he said. “Our greatest challenge last year was the change in location and the melding of two groups of adolescents. Creating a safe, nurturing environment for kids to grow and take risks was our first priority last year; everything we do today is built on that foundation,” said Jay Litwicki, principal at Sedona Red Rock Junior High School.

This is the first year the junior high has been graded as its own school. “We learned a lot by looking at the data provided by the state and have made changes to address areas of weakness.”

Scott Keller, principal at West Sedona School, said West Sedona was on the brink of being a failing school four years ago — so earning a preliminary C is cause for celebration.

“It is with great pride that I can say West Sedona is proving to move in a great direction with its recent STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] accreditation, celebration of AzMERIT growth, and love of nurturing children socially and emotionally. That reflects in our increased student achievement on the recent school letter grade,” he said.

Rebekah Wahlberg can be reached at 282-7795 ext. 117 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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