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Okla. School Ratings War Gets Hotter as Governor, Districts Feud

The battle between some Oklahoma educators and state officials over A-F school accountability is heating up, following problems in the grades over the last few weeks and a study from the state's two major public universities claiming to show that the A-F system is unfair and unbalanced. At least one superintendent is calling for a "no confidence" vote in the state superintendent, but the governor is telling districts to pipe down and follow the law. 

The trench warfare between the state and the districts they govern on this issue could be a test case of how the popularity and marketability of A-F accountability in one state holds up to a sustained attack from that state's disgruntled district bosses.  

What's the fight about? There are two main points, at least recently, to consider. The first was a study by University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University researchers that purported to reveal flaws in the state's A-F system, which was first adopted by legislators in 2011. Among the criticisms, which I documented last month, is that as few as three correct answers on the state's accountability exams can separate A schools from their failing counterparts, and that the system fails to take into account the socioeconomic character of students at particular schools. State Superintendent Janet Barresi, a Republican, dismissed the study as an attempt to deny the power of teachers in student success. But in the state's official response that I received through a spokeswoman for Barresi, there was no specific retort to the report's claim about the small gap between top and bottom schools in terms of test questions, for example.

Then there's the matter of grade fluctuations. Several school systems that received their preliminary grades for review (before they're slated to be officially released later this month) said they found numerous problems with the data behind the grades provided to them. That led to "fluctuations" in the grades as they were reviewed, and as The Oklahoman reported, one district superintendent said he found 41 "discrepancies" in the stats. The state school board is slated to hold a meeting Nov. 6 to review the accountability system before grades are made available to the public that same day. 

But that's small beer for some districts that are growing frustrated with how the state is dealing with A-F accountability. The most-public figure criticizing the state is BrokEn Arrow schools Superintendent Jarod Mendenhall, the district  boss who called for superintendents to say they have "no confidence" in Barresi. In an unusual move for a public school system, the Broken Arrow district has published a multi-part series of articles detailing what it calls "system failure" and other problems with public education in Oklahoma, including a drought of dollars and "legislative fatigue." 

As this Oct. 28 statement from the Cooperative Council of Oklahoma School Administration (CCOSA) and the United Suburban Schools Association shows, Mendenhall is not the only K-12 administrator taking an irritated swing at A-F grading in Oklahoma. "We have no confidence in the state's broken school accountability system," the two groups say in their statement, citing the low number of data inputs into the A-F system—and name-checking that joint Oklahoma-Oklahoma State report. 

When I rang up Steven Crawford, the executive director of CCOSA, he said that his group isn't against A-F per se, and didn't oppose it back when it was approved in 2011, but that the system behind the A-F facade must be reworked. He also said it's "very unclear" just how useful the system has been to parents, a key target group for the usefulness of A-F. (Crawford's group hasn't taken a stance on Mendenhall's call for that "no confidence" vote.)

"If you leave it as is, it has very little positive impact on schools and children. It's not very reliable, not very valid, and it's not very useful," he said, adding that A-F accountability in the state has been built without incoporating what researchers and districts say is necessary.

But now Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican, has sounded off to defend the policy. In the Tulsa World, she called on local districts essentially to stop what she sees as their quest to undermine school accountability in the state. A spokesman for the governor, Alex Weintz, said the governor remains committed to the use of test scores to hold schools accountable: "The fact of the matter is this grading system, regardless of whether or not you believe it should have been put together differently, is the law."

A clear statement, but one that probably won't satisfy Mendenhall and other school administrators. It's not clear to what extent district leaders can pressure legislators or the state school board to change the way A-F accountability works in Oklahoma, but both sides appear ready to fight hard over this issue. 

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