by Mike Burkett
roundup staff reporter
Despite the fact that students statewide received Stanford Achievement Test scores described as "pretty alarming" by one high-ranking Arizona Department of Education official, students within the Payson Unified School District did "extremely well," according to PUSD Superintendent Herb Weissenfels.
"In general, all of our results were above the national norms," Weissenfels said upon the Tuesday release of the Arizona Department of Education's analysis of the test scores. "What pleases me is that we had several (individual school grades) in the 70th percentile, and a whole lot of them in the 60th percentile. Overall, I think our kids did extremely well."
Arizona schools use two main standardized tests the Stanford 9 and AIMS to measure student achievement, each of which are mandated by the Arizona Department of Education. The Stanford Achievement Test, Ninth Edition (Stanford 9) has been used in Arizona since 1979 to measure student achievement in basic reading, language and math skills in comparison to a national sample of students.
Stanford 9 scores are reported in terms of a national percentile rank. A rank of 55, for example, means the student's score on that test is equal to or better than that of 55 percent of the students in the national sample. The national average is 50.
Pine-Strawberry Elementary led all Rim country schools and beat national averages and state scores in all grades and subjects by as much as 32 percentile points in some areas. For example, P-S third-graders scored in the 82nd percentile in math and in the 79th percentile in language. In math, seventh-graders placed in the 94th percentile and eighth-graders ranked in the 93rd percentile.
Nearly all PUSD schools showed overall improvements over last year's scores and some made dramatic showings in specific areas.
Payson Elementary School first-graders placed in the 72nd percentile in reading and in the 70th percentile in math. Frontier Elementary School students scored in the 73rd percentile in math, where schoolwide, FES scored in the 69th percentile in that subject.
Payson High School's highest percentile was 64th in ninth-grade math, but it slipped under the national average in its schoolwide scores for reading (48th percentile) and language (40th percentile).
Rim Country Middle School's highest score, a 63rd percentile, was earned by its eighth-grade readers.
Although some trends revealed by the statewide scores have publicly rattled State Superintendent of Public Education Jaime Molera such as the revelation that one-fourth of third-graders have not yet grasped early reading skills Weissenfels found the overall test results to be more encouraging than disappointing.
"Let's put it this way," he said. "Seventy-four percent of the third-graders are above the national average. And you've got to consider the fact that so many of the children who come into this state do not speak English which was also pointed out in the final Stanford 9 report. So it's only logical that a high (percentage) of students won't do that well.
"When you look at the reading (scores of Payson's schools), the district was at the 58th percentile which is quite a bit higher than the state, which came in right at 50th," Weissenfels said.
There were other positive numbers in the test analysis, too, he added, indicating student improvements all across the PUSD grade levels.
"Anytime you move toward the 70th percentile in one grade, it says you've got a hot group of students. We saw one of those in reading and three in math in four different schools. It was good to see those numbers so high. I attribute that to the fact that emphasis has been put on improvements in math this past year. That definitely had an impact."
Of the other end of the performance spectrum the disappointing numbers racked up within the district Weissenfels says "It's hard to say that anything is absolutely disappointing. Of course, I like to see everything above the 50th percentile. But in everything, our kids are better than average.
"Payson High School pulled in a 45th percentile in language arts, which is a little below the national average but higher than the state average. But it's improper to compare, say, one ninth grade class, because we're comparing it to what? There is no comparison except to look back and see how that same class did as eighth graders and then we make sure that the students definitely made a year's worth of improvement."
The greatest value of the test score analysis, Weissenfels said, "is that it shows us where the weakest areas are that we need to continue to work on. Obviously, language arts grammar, writing, all those situations is one; probably all around the system."
That work, however, was started a year ago at Payson High School, Weissenfels said, "although I don't think the Stanford tests will show the results for a couple of years. What they did was to put in some additional classes to improve the students' abilities in those areas particularly."
While finding and fixing weakness is of great value, Weissenfels said, it is also important to focus on what's obviously working within the school district.
"Seventy-five percent of the nation is doing less quality work than our kids," he said. "That's something for our community and I do mean our whole community to be proud of. Even for performing so consistently in the 60th percentile, parents should be proud, and all we can do at the schools is to keep trying to do even better."
For a complete look at the Arizona Department of Education's analysis of the spring 2001 Stanford test results, visit the department's Web site at www.ade.state.az.us and click the "Other news" heading.