Overall, test scores at Payson schools crashed and burned this semester — with almost two-thirds of students in the “low proficiency” category.

The low scores hit the high school especially hard, with perhaps three quarters of students in the “low proficiency” category. Kindergartners also suffered — with 76% in the “low proficiency” group — and most of those students showing little growth over the course of the first nine weeks of the semester.

This could reflect the impact on the youngest students of the months spent in distance learning.

Julia Randall Elementary School (grades 2-5) proved the standout — with a far greater percentage of its students ranked as “proficient” and where even the low-scoring students made solid progress during the nine weeks.

The tests were designed mostly to measure the progress students made toward learning the skills targeted for each grade level. So perhaps the most important scores reflected whether the students in the “low proficiency” category made progress. Here, Julia Randall and Rim Country Middle School showed solid gains.

Districtwide in English, 60% of students were in the “low proficiency” group — but half of those showed high growth.

About 64% ranked as “low proficiency” in math, but that included 28% of students making real progress.

Confused yet?

Well, let’s add one more wrinkle.

Take the high school scores with a big grain of salt — because COVID shutdowns last semester forced the school to administer those tests online. And that made a big difference — for the worse.

Clusters of COVID cases on campus caused so many teachers to quarantine that the school returned to distance learning. So students took the benchmark assessment test over the internet — and about 30% didn’t even finish taking the test. Unanswered questions count as wrong answers.

That brought the high school scores way down compared to in-person test taking, during which more like 1% of students don’t finish the assessment test, said Brian Young, the high school’s student achievement teacher. The district’s student achievement teachers are focused on helping fellow teachers boost student scores and understand the data generated by the assessments.

The test results suggest distance learning has been hard on kids. Classroom teachers report that close to a third of students frequently don’t complete assignments, log in for a scheduled class session, or drift away before the session’s finished, he noted.

So the generally low scores presented one of the first, sobering opportunities to assess the impact of the months of distance learning — including the on-again, off-again experience between October and January.

“That’s where it’s hard to be as accurate in measuring student progress,” said Young. “We still wanted to see if we were growing — we just weren’t able to control the test environment. When students test at home, they have brothers and sisters running around. They’re picking up the computer and putting it down. Now that we’re back in class, that’s part of the overall picture of being behind.”

He added, “of course we’re disappointed when we see students aren’t at grade level — but we’re looking for growth. Because of the 29% of students who didn’t finish the test — we’re not seeing as much growth as we were hoping.”

Still, the crucial point of the benchmark assessment test was to alert teachers to which students hadn’t mastered the core skills they needed to progress. The presentation to the board included a host of specific measures planned to address the problem.

For starters, the district has reserved Fridays as a “re-teach” day, so students can get extra help to catch up in more of a one-on-one setting. That decision cost most teachers about 20% of their normal, in-class teaching time — which could also impact scores. However, the district decided it urgently needed the Friday re-teach sessions to help the large number of struggling students.

It’s unclear how the benchmark testing will eventually translate into the overall district scores, since the statewide testing system was already in the throes of change before the pandemic hit last year. Several years ago, the state made the just-phased-in AzMERIT test optional. So districts all over the state have picked different tests to evaluate students. Partly because of COVID, the state did not issue letter grades to schools last year and may skip the grading system again this year.

As a result, different grade levels are taking different assessment tests, making it hard to compare results from one year to the next. Payson’s in the midst of shifting to relying on the nationally-normed ACT tests, one option on the state’s new assessment list. Traditionally, these tests were used for college entrance applications. But since Payson’s going to use the ACT for all students — the results might not be comparable to districts still using the ACT only for the college-bound.

So everything’s in flux — especially with the pandemic and the reliance on distance learning for half of last spring semester and a big chunk of this year’s fall semester.

Still, the school-by-school results on this year’s benchmark assessments provided vital information on how it’s all going — providing you don’t read too much into them.

The benchmark tests in reading, math and English were divided into four categories in the presentation made to the school board last week. Students were divided into “high proficiency” and “low proficiency.” Each of those groups was further divided based on whether the scores improved over the course of the first nine weeks of the fall semester. So the district could still take pride in the “low proficiency, high growth” category at each school site.

The single most worrisome category for each grade was the “low growth, low proficiency” group. The most encouraging numbers are the students showing “high growth,” whether they’re low or high proficient.

So on that measurement, 54% of the district’s students are showing high growth in math. Only 36% are both low growth and low proficiency.

In English, 57% are showing high growth. However, 42% are showing both low growth and low proficiency.

Here are the complete scores and how the numbers shaped up for each grade level, with K-2 students at Payson Elementary, 3-5 grade students at Julia Randall Elementary; 6-8 grade students at Rim Country Middle School and 9-12 grade students at Payson High School.

Payson Elementary School

Kindergarten

11% high growth, high proficiency

14% low growth, high proficiency

75% low growth, low proficiency

1% high growth, low proficiency

First grade

23% high growth, high proficiency

3% low growth, high proficiency

72% low growth, low proficiency

2% high growth, low proficiency

Julia Randall Elementary School

Second Grade (reading)

37% high growth, high proficiency

29% low growth, high proficiency

25% low growth, low proficiency

19% high growth, low proficiency

Second grade (math)

42% high growth, high proficiency

10% low growth, high proficiency

18% low growth, low proficiency

20% high growth, low proficiency

Third grade (reading)

31% high growth, high proficiency

19% low growth, high proficiency

32% low growth, low proficiency

18% high growth, low proficiency

Third grade (math)

38% high growth, high proficiency

20% low growth, high proficiency

27% low growth, low proficiency

15% high growth, low proficiency

Fourth grade (reading)

31% high growth, high proficiency

20% low growth, high proficiency

20% low growth, low proficiency

30% high growth, low proficiency

Fourth grade (math)

35% high growth, high proficiency

21% low growth, high proficiency

25% low growth, low proficiency

19% high growth, low proficiency

Fifth grade (reading)

31% high growth, high proficiency

24% low growth, high proficiency

30% low growth, low proficiency

16% high growth, low proficiency

Fifth grade (math)

30% high growth, high proficiency

28% low growth, high proficiency

19% low growth, low proficiency

22% high growth, low proficiency

Rim Country Middle School

Sixth Grade (English)

26% high growth, high proficiency

2% low growth, high proficiency

23% low growth, low proficiency

49% high growth, low proficiency

Sixth grade (math)

18% high growth, high proficiency

2% low growth, high proficiency

23% low growth, low proficiency

57% high growth, low proficiency

Seventh Grade (English)

36% high growth, high proficiency

10% low growth, high proficiency

28% low growth, low proficiency

26% high growth, low proficiency

Seventh Grade (math)

23% high growth, high proficiency

3% low growth, high proficiency

34% low growth, low proficiency

39% high growth, low proficiency

Eighth Grade (English)

20% high growth, high proficiency

3% low growth, high proficiency

38% low growth, low proficiency

38% high growth, low proficiency

Eighth grade (math)

13% high growth, high proficiency

5% low growth, high proficiency

48% low growth, low proficiency

34% high growth, low proficiency

Payson High School

Ninth grade (English)

17% high growth, high proficiency

9% low growth, high proficiency

47% low growth, low proficiency

28% high growth, low proficiency

10th grade (English)

20% high growth, high proficiency

12% low growth, high proficiency

45% low growth, low proficiency

23% high growth, low proficiency

11th grade (English)

6% high growth, high proficiency

3% low growth, high proficiency

79% low growth, low proficiency

13% high growth, low proficiency

12th grade (English)

9% high growth, high proficiency

2% low growth, high proficiency

60% low growth, low proficiency

30% high growth, low proficiency

Algebra I

15% high growth, high proficiency

4% low growth, high proficiency

64% low growth, low proficiency

18% high growth, low proficiency

Algebra II

23% high growth, high proficiency

7% low growth, high proficiency

48% low growth, low proficiency

22% high growth, low proficiency

Geometry

17% high growth, high proficiency

6% low growth, high proficiency

41% low growth, low proficiency

36% high growth, low proficiency

Contact the writer at paleshire@payson.com

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