Payson third-graders fared much better than anticipated on reading tests that will soon determine whether students move on to the next grade.
However, the Pine and Tonto Basin districts could face problems when state reforms take effect in 2013.
If the new standards were in effect right now, 3 percent of Payson third-graders, 10 percent of Pine third-graders and 13 percent of Tonto Basin third-graders would get held back, according to a recent state report.
The report is based on a comparison of AIMS (Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards) test scores with school districts across the state.
The Legislature recently approved a law that requires districts to hold back any third-grade students who receive a “falls far below” score on their AIMS reading test.
“The data was not so scary for Payson,” said Superintendent Casey O’Brien, “Three percent is a fairly low number, especially for our demographics. Compare that to San Carlos at 29 percent, a really significant number.”
In fact, Payson students did about as well as students in top-ranked Valley districts such as Scottsdale and Kyrene.
The legislation entitled Move On When Reading (MOWR) requires third-grade students to pass their AIMS reading tests with an “approaches passing” or better score.
The AIMS test has four levels of reporting — falls far below, approaches passing, meets expectations, and exceeds expectations. The test determines whether students can read and comprehend text.
The MOWR legislation requires school districts to make students repeat third grade to master reading skills if they fall far below grade level expectations.
Despite the encouraging initial scores, O’Brien expressed frustration with the heavy emphasis on standardized scores — and the lack of additional resources to help students do well.
“I feel we’re going backwards,” said O’Brien of the MOWR legislation. “We’re letting the results drive what we do.”
He said a lot of educational research casts doubt on how much good comes from simply holding back a student, without doing something different to get the child engaged.
“If nothing else is done differently than what we’re doing, then what will change?” said O’Brien.
If the child did not respond favorably the first time through third grade, long-term research shows they will not show improvement in later grades.
Ironically, state and federal lawmakers have actually cut funding for programs that have made a difference — even as they increase the penalty for students who score poorly.
For instance, O’Brien credits Payson’s Response to Intervention (RTI) program with the low percentage of third-grade students who would fall under the MOWR requirements. This program provides break-out sessions and one-on-one tutoring for students having trouble keeping up.
“To me it’s a more logical approach if we want them to read, put more money into RTI,” said O’Brien.
RTI has four tiers, explained O’Brien. The first is in the classroom where teachers identify students who are struggling. Then the student is placed in a small group setting and then given one-on-one instruction time. O’Brien says this requires significant resources and with no funding currently supporting RTI, other areas suffer to keep the program going — but the results are worth the effort.
However, state and federal budget cuts have threatened the future of the program locally.
The MOWR legislation was championed by State Superintendent John Huppenthal and is based on reforms made in Florida after 1998.
Over the decade Florida started holding back third-graders who had trouble reading, its students improved significantly over Arizona students. Yet Florida initiated expensive reforms to its school system including smaller classrooms and more one-on-one instruction. Arizona is not putting any extra money toward these reforms.
“The difference between Florida and Arizona is that Florida put a lot of money behind retention,” said O’Brien. “You can debate Florida, but it was a comprehensive plan. This (MOWR) is an unfunded mandate. The state said, ‘You figure it out, but no extra money.’”