The second year of statewide AzMERIT results didn’t reveal many surprises for educators. Overall, scores for math and English language arts stayed steady for many grades, while some saw improvements. It’s too soon to draw any major conclusions from the 2016 results since this is only the second year Arizona schools have used the exam, but there are many bright spots to note among districts across the state, from Prescott to Safford and Somerton to Chandler.
Scores in the Prescott Unified School District improved in nearly all areas. Among fourth graders, the passing rate for English language arts increased to 68 percent from 54 percent, which is well above the state average. Elementary and high school students in the district out-performed state averages, in part because local educators have worked collaboratively to create and share resources that are aligned to state academic standards, a change that has been supported by district initiatives aimed at increased training and support for teachers.
Students in Safford Unified School District near Tucson also improved their scores, especially for fifth and sixth grade math. Gains were possible in part because the district was able to replace outdated materials with math resources that were more closely aligned with the current state academic standards.
In southwestern Arizona, Somerton Elementary School District also saw improvements in their scores in nearly all grades. In a district where most students are Hispanic, leadership was concerned about the impact of taking the computer-based test, which can negatively affect scores in populations that are not accustomed to online testing. Despite that challenge, the district showed greater levels of improvement than statewide scores in all areas except for sixth grade math and eighth grade English language arts. The district attributes their successes to a coordinated effort to share best practices among grade levels and schools across the district, improved teacher support, as well as professional development and training for math teachers to help improve their teaching strategies.
At Chandler Unified School District, overall student proficiency increased to 55 percent from 52 percent. The number of highly proficient students even saw a jump to 19 percent from 16 percent. The biggest improvements came in fifth, seventh, ninth and eleventh grade English language arts, as well as fourth, fifth and sixth grade math and algebra and geometry. Like most other districts, Chandler saw a decline in scores for the eighth grade math test. The dip in scores for eighth grade math was expected statewide, as students who were enrolled in high school level math classes took the end of course AzMERIT exam, rather than the eighth grade level test as they had in 2015. Chandler out-performed state averages in every grade level and subject, in part because of their high expectations of students and extensive training for their teachers, who are the single biggest factor in a child’s success.
At Phoenix Union, one of the nation’s largest high school districts, fourteen of fifteen schools saw improvement in ninth grade English language arts and algebra; five of those schools even generated double-digit increases in those subjects. Some schools increased passing rates by 20 percent or more. Tenth and eleventh graders also saw improvements in both math and English language arts, with the exception of tenth grade English language arts. The district is most encouraged by the gains in ninth grade test scores. After implementing educator training and student courses that are tightly linked to current state standards, their efforts are showing results. But most improvement is attributed to the district’s commitment to research-based Professional Learning Communities for all educators. This collaboration allows teachers to share best practices, identify red flags in student performance and intervene to address any issues.
Most districts anticipate continued gains as students and teachers become more comfortable with higher expectations and a more challenging test. However, many districts did mention the need for increased funding for quality teachers, as well as capitol to help improve classroom technology and update curriculum resources so that they are more closely aligned with today’s needs.
When kids learn and develop critical thinking and life skills in the classroom, they contribute more meaningfully to our communities and our economy. That leads to safer neighborhoods, a stronger workforce, and even higher property values. We have to make sure Arizona teachers get the support they need and children have the opportunity to succeed. Arizona is a great place to work and live. And we want to keep it that way.