By Yvonne Gonzalez

The first test results under AzMERIT, the assessment that replaced AIMS (Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards), have some districts and public charter schools in Maricopa looking for ways to improve come spring.

Leading Edge Academy Principal Mat Reese said with the test approved late in 2014, schools didn’t have much information on it until January. Students were taking the test three months later.

“We’ll just keep on working as hard as we possibly can and go from there,” he said. “This has been a really tough thing for everybody. We just need to keep pushing.”

The new test is intended to be taken online. Maricopa Unified School District Superintendent Steve Chestnut said unlike last year when the district didn’t have enough computers to equip all the test-takers, all nine MUSD schools will give the spring assessments online thanks to additional laptop carts and wireless laptops and an enhanced network.

Results were mixed across all schools. Legacy Traditional School outscored the state average in every grade while MUSD’s junior highs and high school test-takers struggled.

At the 55-student Holsteiner Agricultural School, founder and director Tanya Graysmark wrote in an email that students taking the math test were exhausted after the test and frustrated with the on-and-off-again WiFi.

She said the math was presented differently.

“We have reviewed the data and will work with students on mastering the skills they are struggling with,” she said.

The test is intended to be comparable to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. On NAEP and AzMERIT, “proficient” is the second-top scoring category students can achieve.

“There were a lot of variables, so hopefully we’re going to be smarter and wiser the next go around,” Reese said.

MUSD's overall student performance on the AzMERIT. See below for grade-by-grade scores: Red=Minimally Proficient; Pink=Partially Proficient; Blue=Proficient; Green=Highly Proficient.
MUSD’s overall student performance on the AzMERIT. See below for grade-by-grade scores: Red=Minimally Proficient; Pink=Partially Proficient; Blue=Proficient; Green=Highly Proficient.

Maricopa Unified School District

The district’s superintendent says the scores on the new test were disappointing.

“We had hoped to do better,” Chestnut said.

He said there were bright spots in the data.

“We were very pleased with the results from third and fourth grade math,” he said, noting they were above the state average and “pretty good for a first time out.”

In English language arts, more of MUSD’s fourth graders scored in the proficient category or above compared to NAEP results.

By eighth grade, a disparity appears that is even below a state-level comparison. Compared to the rest of the state, fewer of the district’s 10th and 11th graders were proficient or highly proficient in English language arts.

“College readiness adds a new wrinkle to that,” Chestnut said of the higher levels of the assessment.

“One test doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about a kid’s college readiness,” he said.

Chestnut said data is still being reviewed from the new assessment and, “There’s a lot of work to do there.”

“We’re just beginning to get a plan on how we’re going to move forward on this,” he said. “We aren’t where we want to be and we think our kids can do better, and that’s what we’re working on.”

Due to the shorter length of the test, intended to limit the amount of time students spend on assessments, AzMERIT data does not break down results into the same types of strand data that AIMS did.

“Another problem is that we don’t get as much detailed information as we did on AIMS,” Chestnut said.

Interpreting the data is a step toward improving classroom instruction. Some districts find this difficult without the in-depth data.

According to the Arizona Department of Education, a score of proficient or better “indicates that a student is prepared for the next grade or course without requiring additional support. It is a far higher expectation than the previous AIMS expectation.”

Fourth grade math testing results were roughly in line with NAEP, but, again, a disparity appears by eighth grade that also exists compared to state results. In the highest-level math, Algebra II, 17 percent of Maricopa students scored in the proficient or highly proficient categories compared to 30 percent statewide.

One percent of MUSD’s geometry students tested as highly proficient, a category that 2 percent each of the district’s Algebra I and II students qualified for.

“Parents, particularly high school parents, understand there are a variety of things you have to look at to see if their kid is college ready,” he said.

Sequoia Pathway's AzMERIT results: Red=Minimally Proficient; Pink=Partially Proficient; Blue=Proficient; Green=Highly Proficient.
Sequoia Pathway’s AzMERIT results: Red=Minimally Proficient; Pink=Partially Proficient; Blue=Proficient; Green=Highly Proficient.

Sequoia Pathway Academy

In English language arts, more of the Sequoia Pathway Academy’s third graders were in the highly proficient category than their statewide counterparts. They also fared better on AzMERIT’s math portion.

Fourth-grade math students scored roughly in line with their peers who took the state and national assessments. Slightly more language arts test-takers in fourth grade earned passing scores, 45 percent versus 42 percent statewide. On NAEP’s English language arts test, 35 percent of fourth graders scored in the proficient category or better.

Sequoia’s eighth graders, however, lagged behind their peers at the state and national level with 77 percent failing the AzMERIT language arts section. Statewide, 62 percent did not pass, and on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, 69 percent scored in the basic category or below.

More than half of Sequoia’s 11th graders were minimally proficient, roughly in line with statewide results.

In eighth grade, however, 86 percent of Sequoia students did not pass the math portion of AzMERIT and 88 percent of algebra II test-takers fell below proficient. None of the school’s students scored highly proficient on either test level.

Algebra I students also struggled, with 21 percent earning passing scores compared to 32 percent at the state level.

School officials could not be reached for comment.

Leading Edge Academy's AzMERIT results: Red=Minimally Proficient; Pink=Partially Proficient; Blue=Proficient; Green=Highly Proficient.
Leading Edge Academy’s AzMERIT results: Red=Minimally Proficient; Pink=Partially Proficient; Blue=Proficient; Green=Highly Proficient.

Leading Edge Academy

At the K-8 public charter school Leading Edge Academy, 82 percent of its third graders passed AzMERIT’s math assessment, double the state’s 41 percent.

Reese said the strong scores on AzMERIT came a year after 94 percent of the school’s third graders “exceeded” in the old assessment’s category.

Reese said interventions are in place to help students improve on areas of weakness.

More fourth graders (55 percent) passed the test compared to the statewide average (42 percent). Nationally, 39 percent of fourth graders scored proficient or better in math.

He said “things get more complicated” as the grade levels advance. Fewer of the school’s sixth graders passed the test compared to statewide numbers.

No Leading Edge eighth graders scored “highly proficient” in math, and only 15 percent passed the test, far below the statewide and national averages of 34 and 32, respectively.

The school had 75 percent of test-takers qualify as minimally proficient.

Reese said last year over two dozen students transferred from other schools into the eighth grade, setting up students at varying starting points for the academic year.

There were 8 percent more students passing the language arts assessment compared to statewide data.

Sixth graders’ scores were more in line with the rest of the state, and more students taking the seventh grade assessment passed compared to their statewide peers.

Scores lag among the school’s fifth-grade test-takers, where 81 percent did not pass. In the rest of the state, 67 percent scored below proficient.

The eighth-grade assessment showed the biggest gap, with 85 percent of Leading Edge Academy’s students not passing, compared to 65 percent statewide and 69 percent nationally.

The principal said it’s not ideal to evaluate everything that’s going on in a classroom based on what he called a “one-shot test.”

“It is raw scores, and it doesn’t tell the rest of the story,” Reese said.

Legacy's AzMERIT results: Red=Minimally Proficient; Pink=Partially Proficient; Blue=Proficient; Green=Highly Proficient.
Legacy’s AzMERIT results: Red=Minimally Proficient; Pink=Partially Proficient; Blue=Proficient; Green=Highly Proficient.

Legacy Traditional School

Test takers at the K-10 Legacy Traditional School outscored their statewide peers in every grade level on both the math and English language arts portions of AzMERIT. They also outstripped NAEP scores for fourth and fifth graders.

Fifty-seven percent passed the English language arts portion compared to 35 percent statewide. Sixty percent of third graders and sixth graders scored “proficient” or higher.

In math, third, fourth and fifth grades did particularly well compared to their peers. More than 50 percent in each grade scored at least proficient.

With the state averaging 24 percent proficient in third-grade math, 46 percent of Legacy’s third graders were proficient. Another 17 percent were highly proficient.

There is more room for improvement in Algebra I. Sixty percent of the Legacy students taking that portion of AzMERIT failed to achieve proficiency. Statewide, 68 percent did not pass.

A school official could not be reached for comment.

Holsteiner Ag School's AzMERIT results: Red=Minimally Proficient; Pink=Partially Proficient; Blue=Proficient; Green=Highly Proficient.
Holsteiner Ag School’s AzMERIT results: Red=Minimally Proficient; Pink=Partially Proficient; Blue=Proficient; Green=Highly Proficient.

Holsteiner Agricultural School

In math, 27 percent of the school’s students passed AzMERIT compared to 35 percent statewide.

“This was our first year taking the AzMERIT as well as taking the test in an online format,” Graysmark, the school’s owner, wrote in an email. “The students were on a learning curve for both.”

She said AzMERIT data is interpreted the same by small and big schools like.

“We work with each student on their individual score and create an action plan based on their strengths and weaknesses,” she said.

More than 40 percent of Holsteiner students who took the English language arts assessment passed it, better than the state’s 35 percent.

“We have great teachers here,” Graysmark said. “Working hard every day before school, after school, working with parents, etc. A lot of work goes into daily instruction and preparation.”

“As a school we will continue to support our students learning to the best of our ability and try our best to help them fit their (sometimes) square peg into a round hole.”

Graysmark said there weren’t enough fourth, fifth or sixth grade students for scores to be reported.

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All Maricopa schools had bright spots on the AzMERIT and areas needing improvement.

“These are the highest standards we’ve ever held our kids accountable to,” Chestnut said. “There’s a lot more higher-level thinking that has to be demonstrated on both the English language arts and math assessments … those are good things we want kids to learn.”

Chestnut said students who take AzMERIT may not all be college ready, but those who take ACT tests to submit to colleges do pretty well.

This story appeared in the January issue of InMaricopa News.

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