Mon, July 22

Arizona educators have high expectations

There's a lot of frustration nowadays about school labels, but please, let's have patience.

Much of the confusion comes because schools are being labeled under both federal and state guidelines. Even though the same test is being used, different rules apply.

Arizona has set high standards, is testing to those standards, and is helping schools that fail to achieve the standards. Some fine-tuning has been done to its labels to make them more understandable and to better reflect the test results.

The federal law, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), has two requirements that may cause real "labeling confusion." NCLB requires that student scores be broken out into subgroups, because too many failing students can be hidden in an overall average.

NCLB demands to know if special education students, English Language Learners, Asian, Native-American, African-American and Hispanic students, among others, are making progress (AYP or Adequate Yearly Progress) on our state's assessment.

In addition to academic performance, NCLB also requires that 95 percent of every student subgroup be tested. To put that in perspective, it is not uncommon to have 4 percent of high school students absent on any given school day. When the two requirements are combined, confusion may result.

A school that is listed as "excelling" by the state, may be labeled as "failing to make adequate yearly progress" under NCLB, if a group of students is not progressing, or if too many students from any group were absent during testing.

Here's part of the rub: Arizona established its standards before the federal law, NCLB. Unlike some other states, the Arizona standards are the "Cadillac" of standards. The standards are not just basic skills — but much more. Arizona educators set high expectations for students because they will be the work force of the future. Now, the framework of NCLB is being laid over the structure of Arizona Learns.

Confusing? Yes, but it will be worth the patience to get it right. In an effort to be fair and accurate, the Arizona Department of Education has, indeed, developed an intricate formula for identifying how schools are performing. NCLB, through the reporting of Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), expects, over time, to close the achievement gaps.

The department is now sending "Solutions Teams" of experts to schools that need support to help improve performance. The state is still in the process of modifying the Arizona assessment program so that it ensures that performance on our standards is being measured accurately and fairly, and complies with federal law. Like any complex program in its first year, we can expect improvements in the future.

Arizona is maintaining high standards and it is right thing to expect that all children improve on those standards. Arizona is working to make the process doable: for the Department of Education, for Arizona's educators, and for Arizona's students. We also need to continue to work to make the reporting understandable for Arizona's adults.

Susan Carlson is the executive director of the Arizona Business & Education Coalition