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Why some schools chose the ACT or SAT over AzMERIT


Rio Rico High School Principal Shelly Vroegh Leads A Professional Development Discussion With Teachers About The New 2018-19 ACT Test On January 30, 2019. Photo Courtesy Carol Cullen/ Santa Cruz Valley Unified School District No. 35.

Fifty-five Arizona public schools will measure their high school students’ proficiency in Arizona academic standards with the ACT or SAT this year instead of AzMERIT. But that flexibility eliminates the ability to compare students’ proficiency and growth statewide and could possibly jeopardize federal funding.

The new flexibility is offered by the State Board of Education thanks to Senate Bill 1449, which Arizona legislators approved during the last session.

SB 1449 let the State Board of Education create a list of alternate assessments schools can chose to administer to their students instead of AzMERIT, and schools had until July 1, 2018 to let the Board know which alternate assessment they would use.

“We were looking for a nationally recognized assessment that would be meaningful for students and provide our district with curricular and instructional insight,” said Stephen Schadler, assistant superintendent of curriculum, instruction and assessment for Santa Cruz Valley Unified School District No. 35, which serves more than 3,300 students in Rio Rico, Ariz.

This flexibility in choosing an assessment is important, because while all school districts “share the same goal of raising all students’ achievement, in order to do that, we need different data sets to meet their needs. They are all starting at different points and have vastly different support networks along the way,” Schadler said.

While 2.5 percent of Arizona’s district and charter schools will use these alternate assessments, that flexibility eliminates the ability to compare students’ proficiency districtwide as well as statewide, undermining the state’s A-F School Accountability System, which heavily weighs students’ AzMERIT scores and their growth in proficiency.

Federal school funding concern

Also, that flexibility to use an alternate assessment could possibly put federal school funding at risk, because Arizona’s law differs from provisions in the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

ESSA allows a school district to choose alternative assessments for high school students throughout the district. Arizona’s law lets each school within a district choose a different assessment. K-8 schools also can choose their own assessment starting next school year.

Arizona’s federal school funding could potentially be at risk “if nothing is done, but there is a new administration in office, and they are working intently with all parties to ensure schools are not adversely effected,” said Stefan Swiat, spokesman for the Arizona Department of Education.  

The U.S. Department of Education has had preliminary fact-finding conversations with the Arizona Department of Education on the differences between Arizona and federal law, and “although new administration just took office, it is currently meeting with a variety of stakeholders to examine this more closely,” Swiat said.   

Why some schools chose the ACT or SAT over AzMERIT Tanque-Verde-CPR-Class-1024x687
Ninth grade students at Tanque Verde High School are trained in CPR and bleeding control among other essential skills in their Student Success class. Photo courtesy of Tanque Verde High School

Why districts chose an alternate assessment

Thirty-nine district schools and 16 charter schools chose to test their students with an assessment other than AzMERIT this school year. Forty-four schools chose the ACT to replace AzMERIT, and 11 schools choose the SAT.

Chandler, Chino Valley, Flagstaff, Flowing Wells, Kingman, Santa Cruz, Sunnyside and Tucson Unified as well as Yuma Union High School District will administer the ACT to high school students this year instead of AzMERIT, while students at Tanque Verde High School will take the SAT.

Tanque Verde Unified School District went through a process whereby we got feedback from faculty, parents and students about which assessment would be most meaningful and the SAT was selected,” said Dr. Scott Hagerman, superintendent of the Pima County district that serves more than 2,000 students. Tanque Verde High School, which serves 570 students, opened in 2005 and is an A-rated school that has received the AP District Honor Roll award for the past two years.

“Our high school administrators and our school board believed that it (the ACT) has more value and meaning to our students taking the test and their parents. And, it requires less testing which is greatly appreciated by our students and their parents,” said Roger Jacks, superintendent of Kingman Unified School District, which serves more than 6,800 students in Mohave County.

For some school districts, it has been difficult to have enough computers, a reliable internet connection or sufficient time for all students to complete the computer-based AzMERIT assessment.

The time needed to take the ACT instead of the AzMERIT was an issue and an advantage, but technology was not an issue that played a role in Kingman Unified’s decision, Jacks said.

“The potential for student ownership is far greater with an assessment such as ACT,” Schadler said. “Finally, our high school assessment system has become more efficient, giving our students more time to spend learning in the classroom.”

Under the Arizona law, K-8 schools can choose their own assessment starting next school year, but most schools are waiting to see what develops before making that decision.

“We will consider it once we have a firm understanding from the State Board of Education and Arizona Department of Education as to what the options are for K-8,” Schadler said. “We prioritize the most actionable data on our students.”

We don’t yet know what the K-8 alternate assessment options will be for next year, said Dr. Hagerman.

“Once we are able to review them, they will be considered for their viability in appropriately assessing our student population,” Dr. Hagerman said.

Why some schools chose the ACT or SAT over AzMERIT TVHS-Honors-Night-1024x683
Tanque Verde High School students prepare for their graduation ceremony. Photo courtesy Tanque Verde High School

Update on A-F accountability system

The State Board of Education at their meeting earlier this week adopted the proposed A-F Accountability System for alternative schools and kept the system already in place for K-8 schools with some business rule changes.

But the system for high schools has yet to be decided, because with 55 schools choosing an assessment other than AzMERIT “calculating growth is technically and statistically challenging,” according to the State Board of Education meeting summary.

Because growth is a critical component of the high school A-F accountability system, the State Board of Education and the technical advisory committees will do more research to find or develop a possible growth measure.

Right now, the State Board of Education seeking public comment on three proposed high school A-F accountability models discussed at the Jan. 28, 2019 and asking for ideas on how to measure growth through a High School A-F Survey you can take online under the Proposed A-F Public Comment heading on the A-F Letter Grades page on their website.

For K-8 schools, students’ proficiency on the AzMERIT language arts and math section makes up 30 percent of their A-F accountability grade, students’ growth and ability to reach their annual target makes up 50 percent, English Language Learners’ proficiency and growth on AZELLA (English Learner Assessment) counts for 10 percent, and acceleration/readiness indicators – including decreasing chronic absenteeism, inclusion of special education students, improved growth of subgroups, increasing fifth-12th grade students proficiency in AzMERIT math and decreasing the number of 3rd graders who score minimally proficient on AzMERIT. Schools can earn up to 3 percent bonus for students’ proficiency on the AIMS science that is above the statewide average and an additional 2 percent bonus for schools that have more than 80 percent of the statewide average of student enrolled in special education.

For the alternative schools A-F Accountability System, college and career readiness makes up 35 percent of the grade, growth to graduation counts for 30 percent, student’s proficiency accounts for 15 percent and English Language Learners proficiency and growth on AZELLA factors in at 10 percent, the school’s graduation rate counts for 10 percent and schools can earn an additional 2 points each for meeting or exceeding 80 percent of the state’s average for graduating McKinney-Vento/homeless, foster care or special education students.