Nearly a half-million Arizona students sharpened their No. 2 pencils, filled in the bubbles, and sweated through the Stanford Achievement Test last spring.
In July, parents, educators and the Arizona Department of Education discovered that Verde Valley students in Grades 1-5, according to the national standardized exam, were just about average.
But don't ask them to explain why.
Students' language scores were discouraging: a dismal 40th percentile ranking.
Although local students didn't outshine their national peers, cumulative test scores of students in Grades 1-5 and in Grades 6-8 enrolled throughout Yavapai County were well above the national average. Reading and math scores averaged 61 and 63, respectively, while a respectable 55th percentile was reported in language.
The Stanford Achievement Test is designed to gauge the skills of students in three areas: reading, language and mathematics.
To provide an approximate snapshot of local student performance, cumulative Stanford Nine scores from four Verde Valley Districts were averaged and compared. Additionally, scores are differentiated between elementary and middle-school students as well as respective campuses.
In the Verde Valley, middle-school students outperformed both their younger classmates and their national peers in both reading and math. They also bettered their language scores by approximately 10 percentage points during junior high to fall within the average score of 50.
Showing the biggest jump in Stanford performance between elementary and middle school was Beaver Creek School District, where student scores in the lower grades fell an average of 21 percentage points.
According to Edie Petersen, test coordinator for the district, scores for Grades 1-5 are incomplete and thus statistically skewed. "The results that were sent back didn't reflect our students," she explained. "Some of the classes were incomplete and we received scores from students that didn’t even belong to the district."
This year's 175 students in Grades 1-5 scored significantly below the national average in all three subject areas.
It's the early years that set the tone for later academic success, educators agree.
According to the state DOE, "Achievement in early grades and not developing key skills has a compound effect: those students will struggle to move up academically in later grades."
Petersen is well aware of the necessity for early academic support for students, especially in Grades K-3.
"Every child is now tested in kindergarten and first grade so we can measure progress," she explained. "We provide pre- and post-testing so we know where students started and if they didn't make progress."
The district's 2001 Stanford scores fell an average of approximately 10 percentage points in all three tested areas for students in Grades 1-5, compared to its 2000 totals. And junior-high student scores also fell an average of approximately 4 percentage points in each area while remaining above the national average.
Petersen doesn't dispute the Stanford middle-school scores and is especially excited with the district's average math score in the 63rd percentile.
"Math is excellent we have a rigorous curriculum," she said, adding that students will be in for some significant changes in all core areas come Monday.
"We changed our language arts, reading and math curriculum for grades K-5 this year," Petersen explained. "We felt we needed consistency and continuity. We're meeting the challenge and see not only growth in the community but in our scores. We're going to improve."
Camp Verde students in elementary and middle school scored below the national average in both reading and language, but slightly above in math, in the achievement tests taken last spring.
Superintendent Marilyn Semones, Camp Verde Unified School District, is hoping new lesson plans, aligned with Arizona state standards, will provide the framework for improved Stanford Nine scores in 2002.
"We now have a check list," she explained. "Principals will require lesson plans from teachers that will list the learner outcomes, so we will know learner outcomes have been taught."
Using the state's standards, Semones said there are 300 learner outcomes for each curriculum area. She said teachers have designed materials and lesson plans to ensure every student's opportunity for success.
"The more we teach the 300 learner outcomes, the higher our scores will be," said Semones. "I believe all kids can score well; we just have to work at it."
In the Upper Verde Valley, Cottonwood-Oak Creek School District students in elementary grades scored above the national average in reading and math, and just 1 percent below average in language. Averaged scores for students in Grades 6-8 indicate middle-school students performed better than their younger counterparts, and above their peers nationally, in all three subject areas.
"The seventh grade is traditionally an area of strength," said Assistant Superintendent Julie Larson, who oversees the district's curriculum development.
Compared to last year's scores, middle-school students from Oak Creek School and Cottonwood Middle School remained above the national average. Students' cumulative results indicate an approximate score of a 59th percentile in reading, a 64th percentile in math, and a 56th percentile in language.
In the elementary grades, DDB students outpaced the national average by 15 percentage points in reading and 16 in math, and edged up 5 percentage points in language. In contrast, Cottonwood Elementary School students scored in the 50th percentile in reading, 51st in math and 45th in language. Cornville students in Grades 1-5 at Oak Creek School averaged in the 56th percentile in both reading and math, but only the 48th percentile in language.
"We give teachers the test scores by school so they can look and analyze their weaknesses," explained Larson. "That's when teachers can set goals to make improvements."
Larson said the district has analyzed its curriculum by grade level and has aligned it directly to Arizona state standards.
Although the Stanford is indicative of achievement, she believes the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards (AIMS) is more reflective of students' attainment of the state's curriculum standards.
Students in Grades 1-5 at Clarkdale-Jerome edged up an average of 5 percentage points in both reading and math within the last year, but dropped 2 percentage points in language scores. In 2001 middle-school students inched up an average of just 1 percentile point in all three areas in comparison to Stanford 2000 scores.
Elementary students averaged in the 58th percentile in reading, in the 52nd in math, and in the 48th in language. Middle-school students scored an impressive 65th percentile in reading, a 57th percentile in math, and a respectable 53rd percentile for math.
Students in Grades 3 and 4 have caught the eye of Superintendent Bill Kelly. Both grade levels have scored well below average in all but the reading category in 2000.
"I want to know what's happening with the third and fourth grades – this year's fourth and fifth grades," he said.
But like other Verde Valley schools, the reading scores achieved by some of Kelly's youngest students especially impressed him. "Looking at Yavapai County, no one even comes close to our first-grade scores."
Spring 2001 was the first time Arizona's first-graders were assessed in reading on the Stanford Nine.
And Kelly has reason to be proud: Clarkdale-Jerome students received an impressive 84th percentile score, compared to other schools in the Verde Valley – or 15 percentage points above the second-highest score in the 69th percentile attained by DDB students.