This article originally ran in the Arizona Republic.

An early look at AzMERIT scores has generated a lot of media coverage and conversation about the high number of Arizona students who scored below proficient in English language arts and math. But the scores don’t tell the whole story.

A more in-depth look uncovers the tremendous progress that has been made in schools across the state over the last five years. The truth is students and teachers have worked diligently to adapt to higher standards and a meaningful assessment, often without sufficient resources.

What the scores do indicate is something we’ve known for a long time. Arizona’s previous assessment, known as AIMS, set the bar too low and used a definition of student proficiency that painted a picture for students and parents that was too rosy.

ERASING PAST MISTAKES

The state Board of Education adopted Arizona’s College and Career Ready standards five years ago because our previous standards were simply not rigorous enough to ensure that Arizona’s students are globally competitive, as evidenced by the large percentage of students who graduated high school without the skills necessary for college and career.

In the years since, educators have worked tirelessly to put in place higher expectations and build engaging lesson plans. In addition, after much research and input from education experts, AzMERIT was selected as the new assessment.

These decisions continue to receive wide-ranging support from business and community leaders, educators and parents statewide because they make sense for our kids and the future of our state.

And now, early unofficial results from the AzMERIT test, which was administered for the first time last spring, indicate the decision to push for higher standards and a more meaningful assessment was the right move.

WHY RAISING THE BAR MATTERS

The preliminary student scores on the AzMERIT are similar to the NAEP (National Assessment of Education Progress), a rigorous multi-state assessment, which sets a more nationally competitive benchmark for student performance. Because it is a completely new test, we anticipated that AzMERIT scores would look different, but this doesn’t mean our students are doing worse. Instead, we now have a more accurate view of how our students are performing.

These test scores are not evidence our kids aren’t smart enough or our teachers aren’t good enough. In fact, student performance has slowly but surely been increasing.

Arizona fourth grade students have increased their proficiency in math by 11 percent and in reading by 2 percent over the past five years, according to NAEP data. Additionally, a recent report from the Arizona Board of Regents shows students are coming to college more prepared than they have in the past, with 83 percent admitted without deficiencies compared to 82 percent in fall 2012 and 80 percent in fall 2011.

Arizona is on the right path — working to raise expectations and give parents more accurate information about their child’s academic performance and help educators ensure students are on track for success after high school.

WHAT MUST HAPPEN NEXT

AzMERIT isn’t the only tool educators use to measure student achievement, and it certainly isn’t intended to be a cure-all, but it is one important tool to ensure Arizona’s higher standards meet student needs and teachers have useful information to guide their instruction. Unlike old bubble tests, the new test is designed to more accurately measure how well students truly understand content, and how well they are able to apply fundamental critical thinking and reasoning skills.

There is still a lot of work to be done to ensure more students are proficient in every grade, but we are confident that along with well-supported, effective educators and engaged parents, higher standards and a more rigorous test will result in improved outcomes for students at every level.

This early look at AzMERIT scores reinforces the need to make education a top priority in our state and strategically invest in education to ensure every child has the opportunity to succeed.

Few people find testing fun, but it is a part of life. For some, it may be tempting to return to the old way of doing things, or to try to eliminate state assessments going forward. That course of action will only put our students at a disadvantage and hinder teachers’ efforts in the classroom.

While not easy, the path to higher expectations, including a high-quality test, has Arizona headed in the right direction, one that will help set our children up for success.

Pearl Chang Esau is the president and CEO of Expect More Arizona, a non-partisan, non-profit education advocacy organization working to build a movement for world-class education for every Arizona student. Thomas Franz is president & CEO of Greater Phoenix Leadership and the chair of the board for Expect More Arizona.