East Valley districts succeed in state testing, future murky - East Valley Tribune: Apache Junction

East Valley districts succeed in state testing, future murky

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Posted: Saturday, August 9, 2014 3:30 am | Updated: 10:40 am, Mon Aug 11, 2014.

School districts across the East Valley educated their students at a rate above the state standards according to information released by the Arizona Department of Education on Aug. 4.

School districts serving Mesa, Chandler, Tempe and Gilbert all earned at least a “B” grade from the state in its annual A-F letter grade ratings, which were released in tandem with the 2014 Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards, or AIMS, test.

The state Department of Education determines the grades through a point system in which districts and individual schools are rated on several categories. Those categories encompass the percentage of students who meet or exceed AIMS standards, English Language Learners language proficiency, improvement among a school’s or district’s lowest-performing students and long-term student improvement. High schools are rated by their annual graduation rate and dropout rate as well.

The totals are then compiled into growth points and composite points, and those numbers are added together to create the final score. Schools and school districts can earn up to 200 points and can receive zero points.

This is the fourth year the state has released letter grades; it had previously used a system called AZ LEARNS demarcating results with descriptions like “performing” and “performing plus.”

Mesa Public Schools received a “B” rating from the state and 129 total points — 11 shy of earning the “A” grade. The district had 24 schools earn an “A” and 27 receive a “B.”

“We think we’ve gotten some good grades,” said Joe O’Reilly, the district’s executive director of student achievement support.

O’Reilly added while the state has graded the district a “B,” an in-house survey of parents indicates the district received a 98 percent approval rating from those stakeholders.

Gilbert Public Schools, which also serves students in Mesa, received an “A” from the state for the third year in a row and had one of its schools, Gilbert Classical Academy, finish in the top 10 among all schools in the state. A majority of its schools, 77 percent, earned the “A” mark, and no school received a “C” due to improvement at Gilbert Junior High School.

Superintendent Christina Kishimoto added the 77 percent figure represents a 29 percent increase in the number of schools to receive that grade from the year prior.

“That’s a tremendous increase,” she said.

Gilbert did see a dip in reading and math growth for third-graders and a dip in math growth for grade four, although Kishimoto said the district improved in “every other area.”

Higley Unified had all 12 of its schools earn “A” grades as well, including the two middle schools — Cooley and Sossaman — that opened for the 2013-14 school year. The district’s kindergarten-through-grade-eight campuses have all earned an “A” grade since 2012, but this marked the first time Higley High School earned an “A,” while Williams Field High School bounced back after receiving a “B” in 2013.

While this is the first time every Higley school received an “A,” the district had at least eight of its schools receive that grade since 2012.

“It’s not just getting there, but staying there,” said Superintendent Denise Birdwell.

Chandler Unified School District received an “A” from the state, and had one of its schools, Arizona College Prep-Oakland Campus, finish third overall in Arizona.

“It’s overwhelming and exciting and awesome at the same time,” said College Prep teacher Ashley French.

Sandy Lundberg, who is Chandler Unified’s director of curriculum and former principal at College Prep, attributed the school’s success to “good teachers and kids who want to work hard.”

French and College Prep math department chair Candy Rife, however, gave a large amount of credit to Lundberg for her keen eye for hiring and for inspiring the staff and students.

“We just have a culture of excellence and it’s supported by what we do and the people we have,” Rife said.

Tempe Union High School District had all six of its schools earn an “A” grade. Three of the schools — Corona del Sol, Desert Vista and McClintock — have received the mark for all four years, while Mountain Pointe and Tempe High made it for the second straight year.

This year, however, was the first time Marcos de Niza made the top grade and joined what Superintendent Kenneth Baca called “club ‘A.’ ”

“So now the challenge for all of our schools is how we maintain it,” Baca said.

The Kyrene School District, which serves Chandler and Tempe, earned the “A” score, while the Tempe Elementary School District with a “B” grade.

Tempe Elementary Superintendent Chris Busch said her district is proud of the “B” grade and the “A” received by the Tempe Academy of International Studies, but she said the district is using data analysis and other tools to increase its marks, especially in science for grades four and eight.

“We are really going classroom by classroom and school by school,” she said.

While the scores from the most recent school year had the districts feeling optimistic, what happens next is a little murky. The reason for the uncertainty stems from the state’s decision to drop out of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, exam earlier this year. The assessment was supposed to replace the AIMS test, and the state hasn’t announced an alternative to either examination.

The administrators uniformly emphasized they do not teach their students to one test, but they said the uncertainty is problematic for several reasons, one of which being curriculum alignment. Several districts have transitioned to Common Core standards due in part to the state’s transition to PARCC, but recent protestations against Common Core and the outcry from legislative and gubernatorial candidates like Dave Farnsworth, Andrew Thomas and Frank Riggs puts the implementation of those standards at risk.

If the state does back out of Common Core as well, the transition to a new set of standards could hit districts in the proverbial pocketbook.

“We don’t want to spend a lot of money and find the district isn’t aligned with it,” Lundberg said.

Kishimoto said the shift in standards will make it difficult to track student improvement as well, as comparing the results from two different tests is not an apple-to-apple comparison. She added it takes at least three years to develop a strong baseline for year-to-year growth comparison.

“It’s not a fair way of talking about the district’s progress or even the schools’ or students’ progress,” she said.

Visit https://azreportcards.com/ to search the state’s letter grade ratings.

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