Payson school officials last week reacted with weary resignation to the prospect the Arizona Legislature will once again upend the state’s system for tracking student achievement and rating individual schools.
The Legislature last year voted to essentially do away with the AzMerit test of student achievement. But this week is considering whether to give the testing system on which school ratings are now based a two-year stay of execution.
The Legislature last year voted to let each district pick its own test of student knowledge of English, math and science. School officials worried the move will negate years of work to put in place the current system.
Moreover, eliminating AzMerit will make it impossible to give schools credit for the growth in individual student scores. This will likely drop the ratings for rural districts like Payson, with a high percentage of low-income families.
Superintendent Greg Wyman this week told the school board, “Right now, AzMerit is the only calculation they can use for growth (in scores). That’s 10 or 15 percent of the high school grade.”
This will likely prove a boon for wealthy schools where students start out with higher scores, but will create a significant issue for rural schools where kids have to catch up.
The move by the Legislature represents just the latest upheaval in the decade-long effort to track and boost student achievement.
After a decade of fiddling with the test, the Legislature in 2016 dropped the Arizona-only, AIMS graduation test. Instead, the state sought a testing system based on national standards as part of the Common Core set of standards and learning goals.
Arizona students initially fared poorly on the new tests, partly because school curriculums were based on the AIMS test rather than the new AzMerit test.
Critics complained the national tests represented a takeover of school curriculums by the federal government.
Arizona adopted a modified version of the national test, which is called AzMerit here.
Districts like Payson integrated the standards into the curriculum on a grade by grade basis. Scores began to climb as students and teachers adjusted to the test and the new standards.
However, the AzMerit test continued to draw fire. Republican State Superintendent of Education Diane Douglas was elected on a platform calling for the abolition of national standards in favor of an Arizona-only approach. Once in office, she shifted to merely tweaking the standards.
However, last year the Legislature voted to let each district pick a test from a list of options that included the national ACT and SAT tests.
Those tests provide a snapshot of student knowledge in the junior year, but don’t track an individual student’s progress over time. They’re not aligned with the grade-level standards built into the AzMerit test.
“We can’t use growth on the ACT type test,” said Wyman.
Payson has a relatively high poverty rate among the families with children in the schools, coupled with a relatively low number of parents who attended college. Many studies show those two factors have a huge impact on student scores.
Wyman said the state board didn’t want to eliminate student growth as an element in school grades. However, the system adopted by the Legislature would make it difficult to either compare schools or track student progress.
“There’s a proposal to buy a little more time by letting districts continue to contract for the AzMerit tests for a couple more years,” said Wyman.
The state’s largest district — Tucson Unified — has already opted to stop using AzMerit in favor of ACT or SAT, normally used largely by colleges to screen applicants. The menu of choices for schools now also includes things like advanced placement tests and international baccalaureate exams. All told, 26 districts and charter schools have already opted out of AzMerit.
Critics of the comprehensive AzMerit approach say it’s expensive, time consuming and can cause test preparation and core academic standards to crowd out areas not tested, like the arts, history, social studies and others. Supporters say the test holds schools accountable and identify struggling students in time to offer needed help.
Arizona’s confusion mirrors the national trend, as states drop tests based on national academic standards. Only 16 states are still using the national PARCC assessments in English and math — compared to the 45 states that planned to use the national test in 2010, according to a survey published in Education Week. The Gila County superintendent of schools office sent out a copy of the study in its newsletter recently.
The other states either have no statewide test, require SAT or ACT, or came up with their own versions. This includes Arizona.
A bill moving through the Legislature now could extend the life of the AzMerit test for two years, giving districts more time to decide what they’ll do.
Payson Director of Student Achievement Brenda Case said the grade-by-grade standards will remain in place in Payson, even if the district has to change the final assessment test used in calculating school grades. The standards have not only improved test scores in most grades, they’ve helped teachers focus and tighten their lessons. The grade-level tests enable teachers to identify struggling students. This has allowed schools to offer extra help on specific skills to keep students from falling behind, she said.
Wyman said it’s also possible the state will add a test just like AzMerit to the list — but give it a different name. That’s what the state essentially did when it dropped the national Common Core PARCC test in favor of AzMerit — which had almost all the same standards.
“You can dress up a pig and call it something else if you want,” he said.
So once again, district officials must wait to find out whether the Legislature will upend the system they’ve labored to implement.
“We’ll have to wait and see,” said Wyman. “It narrows down who is going to do the test. These are the kinds of things that will change at the last second.”