No Child Left Behind, the Florida reforms, Common Core Standards, Arizona school grading system — a never-ending parade of reforms and measurement systems designed to show the public children are getting an adequate education.
Is it possible for a parent to wade through the reams of data to understand if their child is learning enough?
Take the Rim Country Middle School (RCMS), for example. The Arizona Department of Education gave the school a “D” letter grade based on AIMS (Arizona Instrument for Measuring Standards) and the Stanford 10 test.
Scores seem to confirm that grade. For the last three years, math, writing and reading scores have dropped.
Barbara Fitzgerald, Director of Special Services and the Payson Virtual Academy, said the standardized testing used in schools simply shows a snapshot in time. The tests do not take into consideration the long-term learning, how the child learns, or if they even take tests well.
As she explained the results of standardized testing, her frustration as an educator came through. “It was flawed thinking,” she said of legislators passing testing requirements, then basing a school’s performance on those tests. “When you have non-educators and non-statistians passing requirements, it doesn’t work. They don’t understand how to measure learning.”
Fitzgerald told the story of the Massachusetts superintendent of schools failing the statewide test given to graduating seniors three times. Before his fourth attempt, the Legislature threatened to fire him if he did not pass the test. Seems kids aren’t the only ones to find standardized tests difficult.
The AIMS test compares students to other Arizona students. The Stanford 10 test gives teachers and administrators a snapshot of how their students measure up to students across the nation.
Unfortunately, in RCMS’s case, the data shows falling scores.
Fitzgerald admits that district-wide every class needs to work on math. RCMS Principal Will Dunman agrees.
“All students that didn’t pass AIMS math are in an RTI (Response to Intervention) math course,” said Dunman. He said this is different than what the school has done in years past when the school had a reading RTI class, but Fitzgerald admits that over the past five years as the District focused on reading, comprehension has improved.
Payson Unified School District Superintendent Ron Hitchcock believes standardized tests should help, not hurt students and staff.
“I believe one should assess student performance for the sole purpose of improving performance and student achievement,” said Hitchcock. “Both tests you mentioned, (AIMS and Stanford 10) in my opinion, are less than reliable tools to measure attainment of skills for PUSD students, let alone measure growth over time at the student or even classroom level.
RCMS Principal Will Dunman agrees, “It’s a snapshot and for RCMS students — it’s either pass or fail.”
Fitzgerald said that over the past five years, the district has taken it upon itself to test students’ understanding of what they have learned and retention of information through other forms of tests.
“We collect data on the oral reading rate and MAZE scores on the reading comprehension rate,” said Fitzgerald, “We look at math fluency — how quickly students know their math facts.”
Fitzgerald admitted that change happens slowly, but the information the District has collected over the five years with these other measurement systems show how children think and process information. As a result of these methods, the school has improved reading — now it’s on to math.
One glaring difference between the middle school and the high school has to do with the type of tests taken.
In middle school, each grade takes an AIMS test that encompasses each year of curriculum. So, a sixth-grader takes a test that determines if they have learned sixth-grade level information. Same for the seventh- and eighth-graders.
According to Nick Bishop, the Interim Director of Accountability in the Arizona Department of Education, the high school growth grade is only based on the sophomore class. The middle school grade, however, is based on three years worth of test taking, which includes tests with three different types of information, said Dunman.
In contrast to the AIMS test, the Stanford 10 test compares students on a national level.
The Stanford 10 results break down into the individual grade levels. For the last three years, RCMS has only tested students on math and reading. Those scores, too, show a less than desirable result.
“I believe a quality assessment process begins with selecting the right assessment tool,” said Hitchcock. “The test should actually be focused on the skill, benchmark, or standard you are trying to teach.”
The Stanford 10 scores reveal how students in each grade compare to students in the same grade in the state and nationally.
Those scores generally show that Rim Country Middle School students hover around the 50th percentile in math and reading, with most scores drifting downward for the past three years.
In 2012, the eighth-graders had the best scores, ranking in the 62nd percentile in reading and the 59th percentile in math. Statewide, Arizona eighth-graders scored in the 62nd percentile in reading and the 70th percentile in math.
Rim Country Middle School seventh-graders had the hardest time measuring up. In 2012, they scored in the 47th percentile in math and the 48th percentile in reading.
The sixth-graders ranked in the 51st percentile in both reading and math.
In almost every category, Rim Country Middle School students scored a little below the state average in both subjects.
Unfortunately, while state Stanford 10 percentile rankings have risen slightly since 2010, at Rim Country Middle School students have a mixed record when compared to students nationally.
The scores have decreased measurably in math, but generally risen in reading.
For instance, in the past three years, the percentile ranking of sixth-graders in math dropped from 62 to 51. Fortunately, their rank in reading edged upward from 56 to 62.
In the seventh grade, the ranking in math dropped from 53 to 47 and the ranking in reading went from 51 to 48 — an across the board decline.
Among the eighth-graders, the math scores rose slightly — from the 57th percentile to the 59th. The reading scores went from the 56th percentile to the 62nd percentile. That shows a gain in both categories.