PHOENIX - Poor reading results from third-graders' first round with the state's new AzMERIT test aren't bad news to one education advocate.
Pearl Chang Esau, CEO of Expect More Arizona calls it a sign that Arizona has finally raised the bar.
"This is kind of a pain-point," said Chang Esau, whose group promotes a stronger education system. "It's the moment where we look at ourselves in the mirror and acknowledge that when we raise the bar to a nationally competitive level - that this is currently where our students are."
Preliminary scores from Arizona's Measurement of Educational Readiness to Inform Teaching (AzMERIT) released last month showed that 44 percent of third-graders scored minimally proficient - the lowest category - in the English Language Arts test. In contrast, 3 percent of third-graders scored in the lowest category of the now-replaced AIMS reading test in 2014. Advocates and policymakers attribute the disparity to a freshly implemented and much more difficult test.
"We've known for a while that our standards were too low," Chang Esau said. AzMERIT replaced AIMS as Arizona's statewide achievement assessment in November 2014 and was first administered during spring of this year.
Chang Esau and others said it would be unwise to compare results from the two tests or to conclude that the competency of Arizona students declined. "Nothing has changed except that we have a different and more meaningful and accurate indicator - a barometer - for how our kids our doing," she said. "So it's not like the kids got worse and now we have this big problem we have to address. We've actually been moving in the right direction."
With the new standards established, school districts and teachers are considering ways to assist students who performed poorly on AzMERIT.
The state's Move on When Reading law requires that third-graders who fall far below reading standards shouldn't advance to the next grade. English language learners and students with reading disabilities or individualized education plans (IEPs) are exempt.
But because individual scores won't be released until fall, the Arizona Board of Education ruled that no students will be held back this year for their reading scores.
"This is not an attempt to go around and hold back half of the kids in third grade," Arizona State Board of Education President Greg Miller said. "That would be foolish."
Approximately 86,000 third-graders were enrolled in Arizona schools last year, according to data from the Arizona Department of Education.
The state allocates $40 million for remedial reading programs in school districts. Miller said school districts must submit reading plans to the Department of Education but vary in their approaches.
"And they're the ones who develop the resources, the identification process, who and what and how they're going to meet that task," he said. "We're not going to tell anyone how to do it. We're just going to say, 'You have to do it.'"
Sean Conway, a fourth-grade teacher at Clarendon Elementary School in Phoenix, said his school's support encompasses reading specialists, reading interventions, after-school programs and test prep.
A major component of the test prep is adjusting to computers, Conway said. Schools were allowed to take the test online or on paper, and Clarendon students used the digital version.
"You see the kids that are comfortable and know what to do and probably know the computer better than me," he said. "And then there's kids that even today tell me, 'I don't have a computer. What does it mean to log on?'"
Conway said that although teachers shouldn't teach only to the test, it's important for their curricula to evolve appropriately in relationship to AzMERIT.
"If the test is going to change, the classroom needs to change," he said.
Miller and Chang Esau said they appreciate the $40 million in funding from Move on When Reading, which Gov. Jan Brewer signed in 2010 to help K-3 reading programs across the state.
"The best I can tell you is, it's helping. Because it wasn't there before," Miller said.
Chang Esau said the investment in literacy has led to improvement in Arizona's national educational scores, but she added that solving a crisis-level teacher shortage and providing for interventions might require additional resources from the state.
Miller said that while more money isn't necessarily the solution, it would help. "It's not coincidental that if you're the lowest commitment to money, then you have one of the lowest outcomes of performance," he said.
The year ahead
Arizona Department of Education spokesman Charles Tack said that Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas is concerned about the "compressed" timeline of AzMERIT's adoption.
The State Board of Education adopted the test in November 2014, months before its first administration.
"There was no testing done. There was no pilot test given," Tack said. "Essentially, the pilot test was the first real administration of the test, and the superintendent was certainly not pleased with how that came about."
Chang Esau said Arizona has gained a more accurate assessment of its students, and she credited educators for doing their best under the circumstances.
"So I think we really have to commend schools and teachers for the hard work that they've done, because they actually have been pushing this really big rock up a mountain, and they're making progress," she said.