The good news is: Payson second-graders look pretty good compared to students throughout Arizona.
That above-average performance comes bundled with the schools “B” grade on the state report card this year, which relies mostly on how students do on the state’s AIMS test, with extra weight for progress made by the lowest-performing students.
But wait: There’s more.
Now comes the bad news: Compared to second-graders nationally, they have a long way to go.
In fact, while the district’s second-graders are holding their own in math, when it comes to language arts, Payson students score just above the bottom third nationally.
Moreover, while Payson’s second-graders have made gains in math, their national ranking has fallen in both reading and language in the past three years.
The district has made significant cuts in each of the past three years, which have hit the elementary grades especially hard. The school board closed Frontier Elementary School and divided the elementary grades between the remaining two elementary school campuses. In the process, the district increased elementary school class sizes by 20 to 30 percent.
The second-graders’ scores matter a lot, since they determine the ranking for the whole school.
“The Department of Education only uses the second grade for the school grade,” said PES principal Donna Haught, since the school now has just grades K-2.
The reason? Arizona schools do not give standardized tests to elementary students until they hit the second grade.
The first test students take is the Stanford 10, a test that schools have used for 80 years to determine how their students stack up against other students in the nation. By the third grade, students begin taking the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards (AIMS) test.
On the national Stanford 10 tests, Payson second-graders scored at the 57th percentile in math, the 41st in reading and a dismaying 36th in language.
Regardless of these national scores, the Arizona Department of Education gave PES a “B” letter grade, based on the AIMS tests, which Arizona plans to phase out in the next few years.
Haught said it’s hard to compare PES to other schools at the moment, since only 10 other schools in the state limit themselves to the K-2 grades. Most Arizona elementary schools teach kindergarten through fifth grades.
Haught said that makes it difficult to make an apples-to-apples comparison of the state school grade PES received. The other K-5 schools all count scores from multiple grade levels in the overall school grade.
However, both Haught and Barbara Fitzgerald, director of special services and the Payson Virtual Academy, say that new and improved testing, tracking and assessment techniques will improve Payson’s elementary students’ performance.
“Ideally, we do testing in the fall to see where we are,” said Haught. “And then we test again in the winter and spring.”
Fitzgerald said that the district’s focus on reading over the last five years has made a difference. Scores show that as students move up in grades, their reading scores improve. By the time second-graders reach Julia Randall Elementary and the third grade, their Stanford 10 scores improve by 20 points relative to the national scores.
The consequences of second-graders’ struggles with reading and language will escalate dramatically in coming years. The Arizona Department of Education will impose its “Move On When Ready” policy next year. After that, if a third grade student’s scores fall “far below” grade level, he or she will have to repeat the third grade. That policy puts pressure on PES to deliver students with increased reading skills.
Haught said she and PES staff already identify students who need help with their language and computing skills.
The school uses the tests, System to Enhance Educational Performance (STEEP) and Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) to identify those students who need help.
With Title I dollars from the federal government, teachers now have the resources to pay for additional learning material needed to help the children.
“We have small class sizes so we can address reading and readiness issues with our benchmark system right away,” said Haught.
Fitzgerald said that it takes time for intervention processes to take effect, but test scores show that the Response to Intervention programs work.
On the other hand, elementary school teachers have also had to cope with an increase in average class sizes from maybe 22 to about 28 or more in the past two years, thanks to teacher layoffs and the closure of Frontier.
In addition, the percentage of low-income and displaced students has risen rapidly. Currently, some 70 percent of the district’s roughly 2,400 students qualify for low and reduced federal lunches, based on family income. In addition, nearly 20 percent qualify as “homeless.”
Studies have shown that family income and a child’s living conditions have more impact on test scores than almost any other factor, including class size.