Test picked to measure Arizona's new higher standards
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Test picked to measure Arizona’s new, higher standards


This week Arizona teachers got the answer they had been waiting for – the name of the statewide assessment that will measure the level to which Arizona students are mastering the state’s new reading, writing and math standards and also will be used, among other things, to measure the effectiveness of their own instruction.

Called AzMERIT, short for Arizona’s Measurement of Educational Readiness to Inform Teaching, the assessment will test students’ knowledge and the problem-solving skills they’ve developed since the introduction of Arizona’s College and Career Ready Standards or Common Core.

Test picked to measure Arizona's new, higher standards AZMeritHPAt a brief public meeting, the Arizona State Board of Education announced that American Institutes for Research, a not-for-profit organization that has been developing K-12 educational assessments for the past 57 years, was awarded the contract.

AzMERIT will be administered for the first time in April 2015. A priority of the Arizona Department of Education will be to get detailed information about the test, including sample test questions, into the hands of teachers as soon as possible.

“It is very important to teachers that there be consistency between what is being taught in the classroom and what students are assessed on,” said Kristie Martorelli, Arizona Educational Foundation’s 2012 Teacher of the Year.

Arizona third-grade through high school students will take AzMERIT in spring 2015 for about seven hours divided over several days.

“Most Arizona teachers have been teaching Arizona’ College and Career Ready Standards for years now and have seen growth in their students,” said Martorelli, a K-3 reading interventionist at Thompson Ranch Elementary School in El Mirage. “However, we have felt as though we were not completely able to move forward with the standards while still being graded on an assessment that did not align with them.”

Arizona will control AzMERIT test design, content, scoring and reporting, and Arizona educators will be extensively involved, according to a press release by the Arizona Department of Education.

“Although the depth of knowledge assessed through the new standards is greater, it is the format of the new assessment that will be challenging and require some time for everyone to understand,” said Dr. Greg Wyman, superintendent of Payson Unified School District in Gila County.  “Our students are now required to justify their responses, not just select the best fit.”

The new test will also measure skills for success not assessed on AIMS, which measured mastery of standards only through the tenth-grade level, Martorelli said.

“When parents receive the results of this assessment they will see that it is a score that shows where their students are on the continuum of college and career readiness,” Martorelli said.

AzMERIT results will be comparable with state assessments in Utah, Florida and the 20 states using the assessment developed by Smarter Balanced.

Districts may choose to administer the test with paper and pencil or by computer. AzMERIT works on a wide variety of devices and uses minimal Internet bandwidth, according to the Arizona Department of Education.

“The limitations of bandwidth in our community, as well as much of rural Arizona, may have an impact on creating an opportunity for an online exam,” Wyman said.  “In addition, the limits on the number of devices may impact the ability of a true online testing environment.  The lack of additional funding by the state continues to hamper our ability to address these areas.”

The comfort level of teachers and students with computers also may influence districts’ choice. The shift in test format from pencil and paper to computer-based also requires students to make major adjustments, Wyman said.

“Kids will not only need to demonstrate their academic knowledge, but will also require technology skills to communicate that mastery,” Wyman said.

Consistent budget cuts over the past 10 years made it more difficult for teachers to instruct students in technology, Wyman said.

“With poorly equipped classrooms and an intensive increase in academic accountability, classroom teachers have struggled to prepare students to the levels needed in the area of technology usage,” Wyman said.

Despite that, Wyman said Payson district schools are making progress.

“As a district, we have worked hard to expose teachers to new methods of teaching to increase student accountability as well as the rigor needed to develop critical thinking skills in our students,” Wyman said. “A portion of that includes the use of technology in the classroom.”

Teachers and students use Chromebooks, iPads, and smart phones as resources, and Payson Unified is part of Vail School District’s Beyond Textbooks initiative, Wyman said. Through a rural low-income grant, the district offers staff technology training in Google Docs, School Master, Web Page, Smart Board use, flipped classroom strategy, Moodle +, Technology Text Alternatives, and Video Conferencing. A Parent University helped parents and community members understand the shifts in academic expectations of Arizona’s new standards.

He cautioned, however, that it will take time for the new assessment to accurately reflect a student’s academic ability, Wyman said.

“As we get more familiar with the standards and rigorous expectations and kids become more proficient with academic technology and justifying their thinking, the new assessment will paint a clearer picture of individual student growth over time,” Wyman said.

Schools and students will need time to understand the expectations of the new assessment and determine what the different results indicate, Wyman said.

The Arizona State Board is still deciding how AzMERIT results will be used in accountability measures including A-F school letter grades, teacher and principal evaluations, Move on When Reading, and the inclusion of end-of-course assessments in high school course grades. At its December meeting, the board is expected to discuss the establishment of a “safe harbor” year for accountability measures.

Because of the higher rigor of Arizona’s new reading, writing and math standards, initial studies have indicated that scores on the new assessment may show students at lower mastery levels than they demonstrated on AIMS, which measured mastery of Arizona’s previous standards, said Wyman. He said he worries that public schools may face a backlash as a result.

Parents and community members should reach out and work together with educators during this time of change, Martorelli said.

“This transition will be a process and will at times be challenging, but so is anything worth doing,” Martorelli said. “We are making positive progress for the students in our state, and I know we will continue to do so if we work together for their benefit.”