At the southern end of downtown Chandler, a small, mostly poor elementary school grew its AIMS scores this year more than any other in the East Valley.
San Marcos Elementary School ranked among the bottom third of the region’s campuses last year, based on the statewide standardized exam’s results, a Tribune analysis found. This year’s scores — released by the Arizona Department of Education on Wednesday — show San Marcos not only outpaced schools with similar poverty rates, but bested many campuses with virtually zero poverty.
The fourth graders’ average math score went up 11 percent and reading 9 percent, from spring 2005. Out of more than 200 East Valley elementary schools, no others improved as much in those subjects.
Now, San Marcos must answer a perplexing question, said Daria Hall, a senior policy analyst with the Education Trust in Washington, D.C.
“Schools and school districts are putting in place so many different reforms,” Hall said. ”And they’re happening all at once, so sometimes you can’t really tease out what’s been effective and what’s not.”
Administrators at San Marcos and Chandler Unified School District have a long and varied list of factors they say spurred the school’s improvement on Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards.
San Marcos students wore uniforms for the first time this past school year. A host of new academic programs was introduced. The school day was extended 30 minutes.
There might, too, have been factors outside of the school’s control.
The number of San Marcos students living in poverty decreased roughly 8 percent, figures from the state education department show. Poverty is measured by counting how many students qualify for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program.
When that figure decreases, traditionally student achievement rises.
Within San Marcos’ attendance boundaries are many homes worn with decades of age. However, just west of the campus is Campo Verde, a nearly finished high-end housing development with homes advertised as selling for more than $400,000.
“That would have impacted . . . the demographics immediately surrounding San Marcos Elementary,” said Henry Pluster, Chandler’s planning services manager.
Even with the drop, 76 percent of San Marcos’ students are still considered to be living in poverty. And the Tribune’s analysis found that the reduced poverty level cannot account for most of the improvement.
The lowered poverty rate should have lifted San Marcos’ average math score by 12 points, according to a statistical analysis that determines how much one factor relates to another. Instead the score rocketed 54 points.
Likewise, the reduced poverty rate should have lifted reading scores by 10 points, but the school’s average results jumped 40.
The Tribune analysis used mean scale scores — which better detail students’ performance on the exam — rather than passing rates, which simply show how many students reached the minimum standard.
San Marcos principal Chris Sargent argued that having fewer students on free and discounted lunch hindered the school, as it meant less federal funding.
The biggest impact on scores, Sargent maintained, was not directly related to academics, but aesthetics.
Before the last school year, San Marcos’ parents ratified a plan for all students to wear uniforms of white polo shirts, blue pants or shorts and black shoes.
“On the first day when those kids came in those perky little uniforms, we said, ‘Don’t those kids look nice?’ ” Sargent said. “We noticed a difference in attitude last year.”
That, in conjunction with more classroom time, was mainly responsible for the difference in test scores this year, she said.
The extra half-hour of teaching added to each day was paid for with $17,000 in federal dollars San Marcos will not have next year. Sargent said she is concerned the loss might hinder next year’s scores.
But Tim Frey, Chandler Unified’s head of research and federal projects, said that Sargent herself chose not to shift funding around to save the program. Plus, he said, nearby Galveston Elementary School added teaching time and ended up with an exhausted teaching staff instead of higher test scores.
San Marcos parent Dawn Blanton is disappointed the additional classroom time won’t continue next school year. She said her son Arryck benefited from the extra time, which pulled his grades up to As and Bs.
“I thought it was a good idea and it gives them more opportunities to learn what they need to learn to move on to the next grade,” Blanton said.
Karen Clark, a member of the Chandler Unified District board, however, attributed the school’s higher scores to strategic teaching plans that San Marcos pieced together last year to help students better absorb the curriculum. Before each school year, every Chandler school is required to write a booklet that details how it will help students increase test scores.
Clark also said wellness centers at the San Marcos campus upgrade the students’ health, which in-turn makes them better learners. The centers, however, were established more than a decade ago and never before impacted test results.
Clark acknowledged that San Marcos’ academic programs are similar to those at other Chandler elementary schools, which did not have a dramatic rise in AIMS scores.
“There is never any one reason,” Clark said. “It is a combination of many, many reasons. And what San Marcos has to be proud about is that they have enacted a whole menu of interventions that have led to this success.”
But Chandler, like many school districts, does not have the resources to study that menu and figure out which items work best. “We unfortunately don’t have a 14-person research staff,” Frey said.
Tribune writer Jennifer Pinner contributed to this report