“I know this year we started out online and we didn’t get computers to everybody early on, especially the elementary school kids. I think it was a challenge for kids. I kind of expected we’d be a little down this year. I see that and hopefully next year we’ll be full-bore ahead.”

Barbara Underwood

Payson Unified School Board Member

Not great.

But hey, could have been a lot worse.

That’s one way to look at the fine-grained test scores after a year of distance learning, pandemics and strain, according to a presentation last week before the Payson school board.

The grade-by-grade testing showed most students aren’t “proficient,” but they are making progress. The results look especially alarming when it comes to math in high school and middle school.

Moreover, the district’s special education and English Language Learner students have such low scores that the district’s in danger of having the state intervene and impose an improvement plan for those groups. Only a relative handful of those students ranked as “proficient” — and a huge chunk aren’t making much progress.

Still, studies nationally show many students lost months of progress in the shift in and out of distance learning during the pandemic. Payson’s scores at least show continued progress, especially in English.

“I know this year we started out online and we didn’t get computers to everybody early on,” especially the elementary school kids, said board member Barbara Underwood. “I think it was a challenge for kids. I kind of expected we’d be a little down this year. I see that and hopefully next year we’ll be full-bore ahead.”

The district didn’t give the statewide AzMerit test last year. However, this year the district resumed administering the more detailed, grade-by-grade proficiency tests that measure how students are progressing throughout the school year. It picked the Galileo proficiency testing to assess student progress for the 2021-22 school year. It helps not only tell teachers whether students are getting what they’re teaching, but ensures the district’s on track for the overall school assessment tests. The results presented last week were based on tests students took in March.

“There are some real success stories here,” said board member Jolynn Schinstock, as she studied the dense, scattershot graphs that groups test scores both by proficiency and by the gains students made in the course of the semester. The biggest value of the tests is in the ability to pinpoint the learning gaps of individual students.

Underwood noted that the district’s decisions to issue Chromebooks to every student and integrate distance learning with in-class lessons took time to implement — but will ultimately pay dividends.

“Kudos — the students are getting much better on their computers. This is a big plus for our district. Getting everybody on those and getting them comfortable — so if they have to go back to distance learning they can,” said Underwood.

The district finished the year in the classroom, after a surge in cases in January forced several campuses to shut down. More than 75% of the faculty is now vaccinated and both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines have been approved for teens aged 12-18. If parents get their kids vaccinated over the summer, school should return to normal in the fall — even if the new, faster-spreading variants pose problems for the unvaccinated in the community.

Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment Katrina Sacco presented the complicated charts and graphs, with the assistance of the student assessment teachers now assigned to each school site.

In almost every category, the majority of the students aren’t proficient in English and math. However, most students are making progress — even if they’re not yet performing at grade level. Nonetheless, a worrisome number of students also ended up in the category for “lower proficiency and lower growth.”

After the presentation, the board tried to make sense of the numbers — and understand whether the large share of low-proficiency, low-growth students in most grades represents just a setback due to the pandemic or a more worrisome trend.

Already, the district’s offering a much broader array of summer school classes this year to help students recover ground lost to the pandemic, thanks to help from the federal government.

“We’re excited to be offering it to all students who need it as well as credit recovery for high school,” said Sacco. Normally, only high school students who flunked or missed an essential class can make up the class in high school. Last summer in the midst of the pandemic, the district skipped summer school entirely.

“Our teachers have been doing a great job of pulling kids in — especially in math,” said Nicole Ward, an award-winning math teacher who’s now serving as the student achievement teacher for RCMS. The district this year has reserved Fridays for “re-teaching,” focused on struggling students. “Even kids who are doing all right are coming in and helping.”

Ward noted that the shift back and forth into distance learning has hurt student progress — and attendance, even when in-person class resumed. “When they came back, attendance wasn’t what it was before,” said Ward. “We’re a little behind on what we should be teaching. English has standards that can cycle around — math does not. You don’t have time to come back.”

Schinstock said she was surprised to see the drop in some of the scores, especially considering how hard she knows her kids and others were working to keep up. “It’s interesting they scored like this. They are online every night doing assignments.”

“Our teachers did the best they could do, it’s been very difficult,” said one administrator participating in the meeting by phone. Teachers have been pouring their heart and soul into all of our students, trying to get them to where they need to be.”

Contact the writer at paleshire@payson.com

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(3) comments

Phil Mason

This is so ridiculous it reminds me of the adage Recession is when your neighbor loses his job. Depression is when you lose yours.

Not good is when your neighbor's child fails to graduate, terrible is when your child fails to graduate.

PUSD test scores are not definable since the powers to be refused to have their students take the AZMerit test, but cherry picked another test that they thought would give them cover for their horrible failure to the families - and it still showed a dismal failure by the district leadership.

The public would be well served if they were given the unvarnished transparent truth instead of scripted messaging that keeps failing our children.

Mike White

Other recent articles in The Roundup have pointed to having less money than the District wants to have being the underlying culprit. And that if the tax cut goes through, then educational outcomes will even further deteriorate, even though different states' spending levels don't seem to correlate well to test scores. How kids are raised, including the ingrained priority of education, seems to be the overriding factor. Not sure how infusing more spending into a district's administration could affect that.

Phil Mason

The articles in The Roundup that you refer to have been misleading at best and an outright false premise in reality. The district has more than doubled their cache of cash over the last few years. The articles have focused on a minor funding source - and even mislead the narrative on that single source. The fact is that your confiscated property taxes have increased exponentially in both the rate and total taking - and that source of revenue to PUSD represents the overwhelming majority of their funds.They actually reported a $9,113,089.00 balance in the bank at the beginning of this school year with an excess of over $5 million more revenues than expenditures last year alone.

It is time for a requirement that school districts must report their total revenues when publicizing their financial status. If this were ANY other industry, the leaders of the company or organization would be in jail for this intentional false reporting.

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