Last year, Payson High School (PHS) loudly celebrated its A grade on state ranking. This year, officials scrambled to explain a B grade just a point or two above a C.
The school score for a B grade falls between 139 to 120 points. PHS scored 121 points.
“It’s on the cusp,” said Payson Unified School District Director of Student Achievement Brenda Case.
Case and Superintendent Ron Hitchcock hosted a meeting at the district offices recently to unveil the reasoning behind the Arizona Department of Education school grade for the schools in Payson.
Case said until students start taking the new Partnership for Assessed Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) test instead of Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards (AIMS) next year, the school grading system offers a mere snapshot of student progress.
“We are in the process of getting rid of AIMS and bringing in the Common Core,” she said. “The difference between the two tests is, AIMS is a snapshot of achievement ... PARCC is not one test at the end of the year. During the course of the year, students take several tests.”
Case explained testing students repeatedly will more accurately show improvement than a single test given once a year.
The grading system from the Arizona Department of Education places extra weight on improvement.
Case explained to measure improvement, multiple assessment tests show the trend, which the PARRC test is designed to do.
“PARRC takes a broader assessment of growth,” said Case. “It’s focused on the percentage of growth. Each kid has been placed in a cohort. They compete with others in their level compared with students across the state. If a third-grader is working at an eighth-grade level — if they do not grow against other students in their cohort across state — they don’t show improvement.”
The once-a-year AIMS test measures progress in the course of a year, but doesn’t provide detailed information about students’ struggles during the year.
With that in mind, Case presented the last three years of high school testing data.
“I’m happy with an uphill trend,” said Case, “(but) 12 percent are not meeting and exceeding in reading by 10th grade. Everyone should be reading at grade level by then.”
Testing in the high school starts with the freshman class taking the national Stanford 10 test. The Stanford test has tested U.S. students since 1923, according to the Pearson Company.
The Stanford 10 gives PUSD a view of how its freshmen stack up against students on a national level. For the last three years, the freshmen have scored around the 60th percentile in reading, the 45th percentile in writing and the 66th percentile in math. Freshmen also take the AIMS science test.
The three years of data show a volatile up and down trend.
In 2010-11, 48 percent met or exceeded the science goals. The next year, that dropped to 22 percent. This past year, those numbers jumped to 64 percent.
Susan Campbell, grant writer for the district, explained what happened. “They were not selecting the right students to test,” she said. “You were to take students who were taking life science and biology and we were taking everybody.”
The sophomores take the reading, writing and math portion of the AIMS test. For the past three years, the sophomores have averaged 86 percent meeting or exceeding expectations for reading, 72 percent in writing, and 60 percent in math.
“We increased student performance in math, reading and science,” said Case, “but it’s not where we want to be yet.”
Other factors figured into the high school score include how many English Language Learners (ELL) learned English well enough to leave the category, and the school’s graduation and drop-out rates.
Case said no students were reclassified from ELL last year, so no points were awarded.
However, when it came to the drop-out and graduation rates, she said, “The drop-out rate increased by 3 percent and the graduation rate decreased by 1 percent. Last year, PHS had an 82 percent graduation rate and a 6 percent drop-out rate.”
This story is first in a series. Next, Middle school turnaround examined.