Graham County schools improve performance

Editorial By Sean Rickert

Pima Unified School District Superintendent

GRAHAM COUNTY – In eastern Arizona, Graham County residents have access to all that is great about living in a rural community. Strong connections and a clear sense of community provide the support needed for individuals and families to survive and thrive. At the heart of that community are our public schools.

Children, parents and, in many cases, grandparents can trace their knowledge, understanding, leadership skills and sense of self back to their experiences at these schools — sometimes to the same schools that their forefathers attended.

There are many who would criticize those schools for what they are not. They are not idealized versions of school. We all understand that every family problem isn’t solved in 30 minutes like on a sitcom and not every story has a happy ending. We know that not every class or every school is perfectly suited to transform every student into a doctor or lawyer. Every teacher isn’t Mr. Kotter or Will Schuester, but all must be held to a standard. So how do we judge our schools?

The most common approach relies on the test scores of the students who attend the school. If the students are well educated, they should be able to answer questions about the content they have studied throughout the year. Based on their ability to answer the questions, we can draw conclusions about the quality of the education they’ve received.

This seems like a simple enough proposition. However, we have issues that need to be addressed. In 1999, the Arizona Department of Education introduced the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards (AIMS). It was administered for the last time in 2014. At that point, almost 70 percent of students who took the test achieved a passing score. A year later, the test was replaced with the Common Core-based Arizona’s Measurement of Educational Readiness to Inform Teaching or AzMERIT, and 35 percent of students passed. So, half of the students who ‘passed’ the AIMS in 2014 ‘failed’ the AzMERIT test in 2015. The question that should be asked is, why was it necessary to change the acceptable standard?

For decades there has been a push to implement a national set of standards and a national assessment. President George H.W. Bush proposed national standards and a nationwide standardized test in 1989. President Clinton signed The Goals 2000: Educate America Act in 1994, and the push for a national standards initiative continued with No Child Left Behind.

So, it should come as no surprise that the Common Core State Standards Initiative has given us in 2014 what 25 years of education reform had been seeking. The final element of the national standards movement is a national assessment, and that assessment is only effective if the scores achieved in one state can be consistently compared to scores from other states. This was achieved by correlating Arizona scores with national scores, and in the process, it was determined that half of Arizona’s students who had been told they were passing now were not.

If we know that the scores themselves don’t tell us much about student achievement, is there another way to use the data to draw conclusions about school effectiveness? Two options exist. First, we can look at how schools perform relative to state averages. Common sense tells us that if a school performs significantly above the state or county average that is an indication that something is going well. Second, we can look at the growth that a school achieves year over year. If we are doing better now than we were two years ago, it stands to reason that it wasn’t by accident. We can combine these two methods of analysis and look at how many specific schools have improved relative to the improvement achieved by others. This helps to negate the influence of familiarity with the new testing format and the new standards.

The usefulness of test scores is broad but limited. We can look at a specific student’s scores and gain knowledge about that student’s academic strengths and weaknesses. Similarly, we can look at a school’s performance and discern ways to apply resources to maximize improvement. However, we also know that a student may be exceptionally capable but limited by social and emotional circumstances that impair his ability to perform. Test scores aren’t going to effectively predict this child’s likelihood of success. And, schools have their own unique set of challenges and obstacles to overcome which is not reflected in their test scores. We should be careful about what we think we know based solely on test scores.

Finally, in the next few weeks, the state of Arizona will publish A-F labels for schools. These labels utilize the test scores as part of their formula. They take into account student performance and the extent to which students are doing better now than in the past. They also incorporate measures that look at the extent to which schools prepare students for what comes next. It will be interesting to see what these labels tell us about the quality of education in Graham county.

The views and opinions expressed in this editorial are those of the author.