After a year of COVID chaos, Payson student test scores have plunged, the school board learned on Monday.
Only Payson’s fifth graders beat the state average in English and math — and not by much.
Every other grade level came in below the dwindling statewide average — some by a little, some by a lot.
“We are falling a little bit behind where we want to be,” said Katrina Sacco, the district’s student achievement coordinator.
The sole exception came in the fifth grade — with the preliminary scores on the new AzMerit testing program for English at 46% — 1% above the statewide average in English. That’s good — but consider this: In 2019, 63% of Payson fifth graders were proficient in English — compared to 52% of students statewide.
The fifth graders didn’t do quite as well in math — with 21% proficient in 2021 compared to 31% statewide.
Nonetheless, Sacco called the fifth graders the test score heroes.
“That’s awesome,” said Sacco, “but it’s the only grade level and subject above the state average.”
In most grades, Payson students were between 2% and 5% below the statewide average — although less than half of the state’s students were proficient in either math or English in almost all grades.
However, in some grades — Payson students had scores more than 10% below the state average.
For instance, in eighth grade, 24% of Payson students were proficient in English, compared to 35% of students statewide. In math, only 12% of Payson eighth graders were proficient compared to a dismaying 26% statewide.
Both the state and local scores have fallen after 18 months of pandemic shutdowns and on-and-off distance learning.
Payson falls into line with research on the pandemic’s impact on education nationally. Poor, rural and minority districts took the biggest hit, with students losing months of normal academic progress.
Payson is considered a low-income, rural school district — with about half the families qualifying for free and reduced lunch and maybe a quarter of students lacking reliable access to the internet at home.
The pandemic declines washed away solid progress Payson made in 2017 and 2018 — when Payson’s students scored above the state average in many grades. The district’s ranking on the state average now more closely resembles 2015 and 2016 — with scores in most grades well below average. Moreover, Arizona’s scores fall generally below the national average.
“It looks like 2017 and 2018 were rock star years, 2019 a bit of a decline and 2020 a bit lower,” said Sacco.
Overall, scores throughout the state declined — with Payson falling a little more than most.
For instance, in 2021, only 35% of Arizona third graders ranked as proficient in English. That’s bad — but only 21% of Payson third graders made the cut. That compares to 42% in 2019, before the pandemic upended public education.
Fourth grade looked a little less dire — with 44% of students statewide and 37% of Payson students ranked as proficient.
“Compared to previous years, we’re not excited about where we’re heading,” said Sacco. “But when I look at the cohort data, PUSD is following state norms — mostly across the board. There is a gap between the two — our goal is to close that gap and overcome it. Outside factors are likely affecting the rest of the state — like they’re affecting us.”
Outside factors include the limitations of distance learning, the pandemic’s social and emotional impact on kids and the economic struggles of many families.
Of course, the picture is also muddled by constant changes in the state testing requirements, changes in the tests themselves and the scramble of teachers and the district to adjust curriculum.
The latest results raise all kinds of alarm bells, since students who fall behind in the elementary school years have a tough time catching up. The results this year are worrisome in third grade, where students need to master reading skills on which the rest of their education is built. Studies show that students who struggle to read in third grade have trouble catching up — which is reflected years later in higher dropout rates, lower grades, lower college attendance rates and other problems.
That’s why the state, in one of its fits of reform, promised extra resources to ensure students could read by the end of third grade — and vowed to hold back third graders who couldn’t pass the reading test. Like lots of other state-imposed reforms, this lasted for a couple of years before things shifted again. Research demonstrated that holding students back generally does more harm than good — so “move on when ready” got watered down into some extra testing and a half-hearted effort to provide districts with tutors and intervention teachers.
“Are they still doing ‘move on when ready’ in third grade?” asked board member Barbara Underwood, the longest serving board member.
“Well, in 2014 and 2015, they were pretty strict. We were all pretty scared of it,” said Sacco. “It’s not as strict now — in looking at the role of (grade) retention, it’s not in the interest of third graders to retain them. But it is in their interest to provide additional intervention.”
Unfortunately, the chaos will continue — with the latest state-orchestrated upheaval. The state has discarded AzMerit as a statewide requirement, allowing districts to select their own assessment tests — often with different systems in different grades.
“Next year, we’ll have new assessments — which makes it even more frustrating to understand where we’re at,” said Sacco.
Board member Jolynn Schinstock said, “Since the state testing is so inconsistent and we can’t control it so we can compare apples to apples — we have to have our own internal testing.”
Sacco agreed — but so far the district doesn’t have that new framework in place.
She indicated that the downward trend is so broad — both inside the district and statewide — that she doesn’t think it connects to individual teachers.
“We have teachers that are really strong and teachers that need more support. But when you look at the cohort data, I think it’s a combination of factors — something as simple as how we adapted to the online curriculum or whether a student has a parent working at home. I don’t think it’s a specific set of teachers or instructional practices — but it’s important that we’re looking at what all those factors could be.”