Act Results Show Arizona Schools Need Improvement

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There’s an ongoing debate about education in our state: Does Arizona rank near the bottom, in the middle, or toward the top in terms of academic achievement? A new source of testing data sheds light on the discussion.

Two writers I frequently read have adopted “it’s not so bad” stances. The Arizona Republic’s chief education reporter Pat Kossan cited slightly improved dropout and TerraNova exam figures to suggest Arizona could be doing worse, likening Arizona to a C student. Espressopundit.com blogger Greg Patterson points out that Arizona has above the national average SAT scores.

But, Arizona’s SAT scores are inflated by the fact that we have among the lowest participation rates in the nation. Only 26 percent of Arizona high school graduates took the SAT in 2008, and only 15 percent took the ACT exam, giving Arizona the lowest combined participation rates in the country.

Arizona has other sources of testing data that seem to offer better news, but none of them can withstand critical scrutiny. AIMS scores are up, but the state has made the test easier and easier to pass, so the results can’t really be trusted.

As for the TerraNova cited by the Republic, the state created its own version of the test to compare Arizona students to others around the country and inserted this test into the AIMS.

The results of this hybrid test are so completely different, however, from the nation’s most respected source of K-12 testing data — the Nation’s Report Card exam given to random samples of students in all 50 states — that they fail to pass a sniff test. Unlike the AIMS test, no school ranking or funding is based on the results on the Nation’s Report Card, so there is no incentive to teach to the test. Even if a teacher wanted to do so, she couldn’t because the tests are kept completely secret.

The Nation’s Report Card has shown that Arizona students score below the national average on every test, at every grade level and subject, since the early 1990s. But, the state’s AIMS/TerraNova hybrid says that Arizona students score above the national average in every grade and every subject tested.

Recently, an important new source of data came available that might help clear up the confusion. On April 22, 2009 almost 12,000 juniors from eight Arizona districts — Mesa, Flagstaff, Globe, Lake Havasu, Peoria, Phoenix, Round Valley and Window Rock — took the ACT exam. By having essentially all students take the exam, these eight districts were able to much more accurately understand how they compare to other states where all students take the ACT, like Colorado and Illinois.

A delicate way to describe the results would be “mixed” but “occasionally catastrophic” would also be accurate. The highest scoring district, Mesa, did not match the statewide average for either Colorado or Illinois. Most districts were far below these statewide averages.

Phoenix Union outscored the Detroit Public Schools, well-known as among the worst in the nation, only by a whisker. Another district fell well below Detroit.

The good news is that we can make Arizona’s schools much better, even without spending huge amounts of new money, which the state doesn’t have in any case.

In 1998 Florida students scored near the bottom, alongside Arizona, on the Nation’s Report Card, but since then has radically improved their performance. Like Arizona, Florida has a majority-minority student population, ranks in the bottom half on spending, and has a large percentage of low-income children.

Despite all of this, in 2007 after years of stunning improvement, Florida’s low-income Hispanic students outscored the statewide average for all students in Arizona on the critical Nation’s Report Card fourth-grade reading exam. Florida’s Hispanic students outscored 15 statewide averages that year, and their African Americans outscored two, and are within striking distance of several others, including Arizona.

Florida’s policymakers achieved these results with a multifaceted education reform approach, not with a single magic bullet. Reliable testing, real consequences for school failure, expanded parental choice, alternative teacher certification, reforming reading instruction and curtailing social promotion all played critical roles in improving Florida schools.

With the correct mix of policies, Arizona could enjoy the same level of success. But we first have to admit that we have a serious problem and summon the moral courage required to enact serious reform.

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