Superintendent Tom Horne’s office is crafting a proposal to change the A-F school grading formula to reflect whether schools take part in values-based teaching standards — as defined by the Horne administration.
If successful, that means the next round of school letter grades could penalize Arizona schools for allegedly teaching topics like critical race theory — the application of which in K-12 education is ill-defined and under dispute — or using recently controversial educational approaches like social and emotional learning.
The proposal, which the administration plans to present formally in mid-April, would have to be adopted by the Arizona State Board of Education. Horne is a member of the State Board.
“I stand for the philosophy that individuals are primary and race is irrelevant,” said Horne, a Republican. He expects school conversations on race and identity to follow this format, he said.
Horne said his team is still developing a plan for how to best collect information on what schools are teaching and how to include that in the letter grade formula, he said.
Other current state board members, all of whom are appointees of former Gov. Doug Ducey, declined to comment through Sean Ross, executive director of the Arizona State Board of Education.
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State and federal law require a measure of school performance that is comparable across schools. The current formula is a snapshot of assessment test scores, student learning growth from year to year, the preparation level of middle and elementary school students for the next grade and high school graduation rates.
The state board and Arizona Department of Education approved a five-year accountability plan on school letter grades last year, which includes the option to regularly review the standards defining the number of points required for a school to earn an A, B, C or D, also known as a “cut score.”
The Department of Education has the authority to suggest changes to what goes into the school letter grade formula. But the state board is the body that adopts those standards and also handles letter grade appeals from individual schools.
Much of the school letter grade formula is now translated from numerical elements. What students are learning, and how it meets the new administration’s standards, is less well defined.
On the campaign trail and since taking office, Horne has painted his concerns about school instruction with a broad brush.
Social and emotional learning, restorative justice or diversity, equity and inclusion frameworks are all “Trojan horses” for critical race theory, according to Horne.
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Critical race theory is an academic concept examining how race impacts U.S. institutions that some conservatives use to characterize any race-related instruction. Whether critical race theory is actually taught in any K-12 Arizona schools is disputed by many educators, but the Horne administration says they have heard first-hand accounts of its use from classroom teachers.
So far, Horne’s promised “war” on critical race theory has meant eliminating the Education Department’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion that existed under Horne’s predecessor, Democrat Kathy Hoffman, and limiting presentations on topics of equity and social and emotional learning at a statewide teacher conference.
But most broader changes will need the cooperation of the State Board or the Legislature and governor.
Yana Kunichoff is a reporter on The Arizona Republic’s K-12 education team. You can join the Republic’s Facebook page and reach Yana at firstname.lastname@example.org.