As Arizona students begin to take AzMERIT for the first time, teachers and administrators describe how they’ve prepared for the new assessment and parents and students voice their concerns.
Beginning this week, students throughout Arizona will take AzMERIT (Arizona’s Measurement of Educational Readiness to Inform Teaching), which measures their mastery of Arizona’s College and Career Ready Standards in math and English/Language Arts.
AzMERIT replaces AIMS (Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards), which measured students’ proficiency with the previous standards through 10th grade. Students in fourth- and eighth-grades and high school will continue to take the AIMS Science test until a new assessment is developed.
In response to requests from the education community to give students, teachers and schools time to adapt to the new test, Gov. Doug Ducey recently signed a bill that will delay application of the test results to school and district letter grades, students’ grades and teacher evaluations for this year.
In December, the Arizona State Board of Education decided to suspend school A-F letter grades for a year as schools get used to the new test. School letter grades are partially based on students’ scores on a statewide assessment.
Preparing for AzMERIT
Preparing for a new test can be a difficult, especially with a limited amount of time to expose students to the new format and potential questions.
Stanfield Elementary students have been doing daily review questions on high-priority skills, said Pamela Houston, a third-grade teacher at the school in Pinal County.
“This daily review is for reading, grammar and math,” Houston said. “It provides much needed spiral review for the skills third-graders have learned over the course of the school year.”
Some teachers at Mingus Union High School in Yavapai County said students have been doing practice tests to become more familiar with content and format. Others say they’ve kept students focused on learning the content through rigorous lessons. All teachers at the Cottonwood school agree that preparing for the assessment goes beyond practice tests.
“My preparation for any exam – whether it’s an exit exam, benchmark, or content test – is to teach students to read closely and think critically,” said one Mingus teacher. “My students read, discuss, analyze and write about (or from) a wide range of literature and functional texts, using evidence from the texts to support what they think or say. I believe following best practices of teaching utilizing the ACCRS standards is the best way to prepare students for any exam.”
The students are preparing for state testing even if they don’t realize it, another teacher said, noting that “vocabulary building is an ongoing preparation for the test – and for life.”
At Higley Unified’s Power Ranch Elementary School, faculty concentrate on teaching to the new standards, which has helped prepare students for AzMERIT, said Sherry Richards, principal.
“Teachers create pacing guides and common assessments to track student progress and growth,” Richards said. “We also use data from our quarterly benchmark assessments to determine levels of mastery. Intervention and enrichment opportunities are aligned to individual student needs.”
Some lingering concerns
Despite school’s preparation for the new assessment, some parents, students and teachers still have concerns.
Some students from Mingus said that they are taking practice tests, while others still are unsure of what to expect on the exam.
“I’m trying to focus and concentrate on the upcoming news and concepts in each class,” a Mingus student said. “I’ve been doing some review and should probably do more since I’m not really sure what’s really on the test.”
Because AzMERIT is currently not a graduation requirement for high school students like AIMS was, some teachers are concerned that students might not take the test seriously.
“With it being the first year, I don’t think the students see it as being very important,” one Mingus teacher said. “They’ve had years of the AIMS test in front of them, but not the AzMERIT.”
Another Mingus student expressed concern over spending class time taking a test that might not show any benefits for students preparing for college.
“We need our time for learning and preparing for finals, not a test that doesn’t help our grade, GPA or getting into college,” the student said.
Instead of requiring students to pass AzMERIT to graduate, students in freshman through junior English/Language Arts classes and Algebra I, Geometry and Algebra II will take AzMERIT’s end-of-course tests.
While education advocacy groups like Expect More Arizona have provided information about how to help children prepare to take the new assessment, some parents say they haven’t received much information about the test from their children’s schools.
“Many of my concerns come from the simple lack of information and communication regarding the new test that I believe should be coming down from the state through the schools to the parents and children affected by the change in standardized testing,” said Jennifer Schroeder, a parent of two boys at Stanfield Elementary School.
Schroeder said in previous years she helped her sons prep for AIMS with flashcards and sample tests, but this year she doesn’t plan on investing as much time because of the minimal amount of information she’s received.
Teachers said they are waiting to see how closely AzMERIT is aligned with their curriculum and if it will measure what their students have learned so far this school year.
Technical considerations for AzMERIT
As a computer-based test, AzMERIT has the ability to provide engaging questions and measure critical thinking, according to the Arizona Department of Education. After the initial year of testing, schools should receive their AzMERIT results more quickly than they did with AIMS, which will let teachers to respond to students’ needs more quickly.
Administering a new test, especially one with a computer-based component, comes with uncertainties that require extra preparation by schools. Not all schools have the technological capabilities to efficiently conduct the assessments on computers district- or school-wide during the testing window, so for the first few years of testing, schools will have the option to use a paper-based version.
Higley Unified, a Maricopa County district of about 11,000 students, will have students take the test on computers instead of on paper.
“While challenges may arise, our students are prepared to take this assessment online, because all quarterly benchmark assessments are done on the computer as opposed to paper and pencil,” said Kristin Kinghorn, assistant principal at Coronado Elementary School. “Teachers and media specialists have been working on typing lessons to assist students with their typing skills in order to better prepare them for the writing portion of AzMERIT.”
Mingus High School will shift classes to unaccustomed block scheduling to provide students the time they need to take the test on the computer. That will impact all courses and lead to a loss of instructional time, Principal Jennifer Chilton said.
The late-start method for structuring AIMS testing doesn’t work for computer-based testing, because “we do not have the number of devices that would be required for simultaneous administration of the test (to all students),” she said.
If the recent capital override had been approved, the school’s ability to administer an assessment electronically would not be as much of a concern, a Mingus teacher said.