The myth that Arizona's educational system is the worst in the nation is slowly being debunked.
As statistical precision is applied to yardsticks such as funding, test scores and graduation rates, it turns out Arizona is nowhere near the nation's “educational basement” as some critics have repeatedly charged.
In fact, by most reliable measures, Arizona is roughly in the middle. That's nothing necessarily to cheer about; we should aspire to be well above average educationally. But it's nothing to be ashamed of, either. It's not cause for the kind of alarm we've witnessed in recent years, especially from those who insist the public schools need ever larger amounts of our tax dollars.
The latest batch of encouraging news came last week from the Arizona Center for Public Policy and the Arizona Department of Education, which have been collecting the most reliable figures available on graduation rates. While Arizona's dropout rate has long been disparaged as “the worst in the nation,” come to find out our graduation rate is above the national average.
Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne says previous reports have been flawed. “As an example, in prior studies, Arizona counted students who received GEDs as dropouts, whereas a number of other states did not. The comparisons were, therefore, misleading,” Horne said. “The graduation rate that is the subject of the most recent study, by contrast, compares apples with apples, and shows Arizona doing better than the national average.”
The most recent study shows 76.4 percent of Arizona students entering ninth grade in fall 1998 had graduated by spring 2003. The national average is 67.3 percent.
That still means one in three students didn't graduate in four years nationally, and one in four didn't graduate in Arizona. Both numbers are cause for concern — but not necessarily alarm. Many dropouts eventually earn at least a GED, but we still should be doing all we can to keep students engaged in education so they don't drop out — usually into unskilled, low-pay jobs.
If Arizona is to attract more of the kinds of high-quality emerging industries in biotechnology, communications and other fields that pay good salaries, we must have a well-educated work force. We cannot settle for average, whether it's test scores or graduation rates.
Knowing that we're not on the bottom rung in either case is encouraging news, given the gloomy comparisons of the past. It is also good to know, as the Arizona Tax Research Association revealed in October, that Arizona's teachers earn salaries that are about in the middle nationally. ATRA used statistics compiled by the National Education Association, the country's largest teachers' union.
Arizona's educators still face tough challenges, among them our state's large proportion of non-English speaking students, a relatively high degree of transience in our population, and pockets of poverty throughout the state.
But knowing that our educational performance, as measured by reliable means, is far from the miserable reports we've heard in the past is proof a lot of good things are going on in our schools. It's also an encouraging indication that loftier goals are within reach.