The picture painted by standardized test score results released Wednesday by the Arizona Department of Education shows dramatic variations around Rim Country.
While students in the Payson Unified School District essentially maintained last year's scores for the Arizona Institute to Measure Standards (AIMS) test, the Pine Strawberry Elementary School experienced significant drops.
All three Payson elementary schools turned in strong performances in all three subjects -- math, reading and writing. In almost every category, Payson elementary school students scored about 15 points above the state average.
At Payson High School, sophomores and juniors generally scored a little bit above the state average. But the seniors, in all three areas, scored below the state average. In math, only 18 percent met or exceeded the standards in math, compared to 29 percent statewide.
Only the students who did not pass the test in previous years had to take it as seniors.
In Pine Strawberry, fourth grade math scores dropped from 88 percent of students meeting or exceeding standards last year to 44 percent in 2008. The number of students classified as falling far behind on that same test increased by 6 percent, up to 19 percent.
Pine Strawberry School District Superintendent Mike Clark said his district received an influx of new students just a few weeks prior to the test -- in some cases, the students arrived days before.
The entire district, from pre-kindergarten to eighth grade, has 139 students enrolled.
"If one or two students do not do well, it really skews my percentages," Clark said. "If you do an analysis of the kids who have been with us all of the school year or longer, those kids did extremely well."
However, Clark anticipates that his school will still meet benchmarks set by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. AIMS test scores are one component of judging whether schools are deemed adequate by federal standards.
The mood at Payson Unified School District was more victorious. "We did awesome," said Kathy Kay, director of curriculum.
At Payson High School, for instance, 82 percent of sophomores met or exceeded standards for the reading portion at AIMS. That percentage dropped to 66 at the county level and 73 at the state level, according to numbers provided by the district.
In math, sophomores and juniors also performed better than their peers at the county and state levels.
Data provided by the district that tracks how students in one grade perform after graduating to the next grade level, show gains in reading, except for students moving from fifth to sixth grades. Kay attributed the decline partially to the stress of adolescence and partially to the difficult transition from elementary school to middle school.
In that same data, writing and math scores declined slightly as students progressed through grade levels from 2007 to 2008. For instance, 89 percent of fourth-graders at least met math standards in 2007. In 2008, when the students tested as fifth-graders, the percentage dropped to 86.
At Rim Country Middle School, the most significant change was a drop in seventh-grade writing scores, from 87 percent meeting or exceeding to 60 percent meeting or exceeding. Most other areas, across grade levels and subjects at the middle school, showed modest gains in the 4 percent range.
Many school officials and legislators question whether AIMS is an appropriate mechanism of gauging student progress.
A task force established by the state legislature during budget deliberations is set to examine the merits of AIMS and the possibility of substituting another test. A report is due by that task force to the legislature by June 2009.
However, high school students are still required to pass the test to graduate. Kay said that no students' diplomas were withheld because they failed AIMS.
She also said the scores are important to schools.
"These scores not only tell us about the students, they tell us about the teachers." A detailed and personalized report is sent home to each child's parents, so parents can see how their child compares to the standards.
"It's very important for the parents to see if their child is progressing." Kay said the district builds the importance of the test in children's imaginations. "This is your chance to show us what you've got," she said teachers tell students.
Students in third through eighth grade take AIMS. Sophomores also take the test, taking it again if they don't pass. Second-graders and freshmen take another standardized test.
At least 95 percent of students took the AIMS, which is the state standard.