Amphitheater School District Art Show

More than a thousand works of art created by students from the Amphitheater School District are on display at the Foothills Mall.

Randy Metcalf/The Explorer

Public schools on the northwest side and in the Foothills mostly outperformed schools statewide on last year’s accountability measures.

According to data released last week, Marana Unified School District and Amphitheater Public Schools each earned a letter grade of B from the Arizona Department of Education, while the Catalina Foothills Unified School District held onto its A. Among individual schools, few were at the C or D level.

Statewide, 65 percent of schools earned an A or B label. Closer to home, 88 percent of schools in Marana and all of Catalina Foothills scored above a B or better. In Amphi – which stretches from around Campbell Avenue and Grant Road in Tucson and up through Oro Valley and Catalina – all of the schools north of River Road, where incomes trend higher, earned A or B grades. Charter schools Legacy Traditional School, Basis Tucson North and Basis Oro Valley also maintained A labels.

Although MUSD, as a district, earned a B overall both last year and the year prior, five of its schools dropped from an A to a B.

Brett Kramer, MUSD’s executive director of improvement initiatives, pinned this on the misalignment between current educational standards and the standards measured by the state’s AIMS test, which remained in use last school year even though the state had mandated districts to shift toward the new Arizona College and Career Ready Standards, or Common Core.

To Kramer, that’s like “using a human thermometer to measure the temperature of the ambient air. There’s just not a whole lot of precision there.”

He said he encourages teachers to invest their time now in studying Common Core-aligned exams rather than try to dissect the AIMS scores too deeply. The Arizona Department of Education is expected to announce a new standardized test this fall, one that is better aligned to the new standards.

Also, the related letter grades might not be as valuable as they usually are.

“I’m not sure they’re terribly useful this year simply because of the disconnect between the measurement instrument and what was being measured,” Kramer said.

Monica Nelson, associate superintendent at Amphi, said there’s some overlap between competencies measured by AIMS and Common Core, but there are also differences.

She said the AIMS scores are still useful to the district, which studies trends over years of data from multiple standardized tests. 

At the consistently high-performing Catalina Foothills, teachers implemented the new standards at the elementary level in 2011 and the secondary level in 2012.

 “The new standards maintain the high expectations and rigor that have always been an expectation in our classrooms,” said Mary Jo Conery, Catalina Foothills associate superintendent. “Many teachers conducted a crosswalk between the new standards and previous performance objectives, and created lessons to fill the gaps. However, the focus of instruction has been on the (Arizona) College and Career Ready Standards.”

Conery said the district analyzed district, school and individual performance results and growth over time, as it had in past years. She saida target score made it possible to evaluate the potential success of students on future, Common Core-aligned tests and intervene where necessary.


Should Even Out

Kramer said older elementary school children – between fourth and sixth grades – were most at risk academically, since they started school under the previous standards and had to switch midstream. This is especially true in math, where the standards changed the most— by the intermediate grades students need a solid number sense, which is built up in the lower grades under Common Core. 

Marana’s fourth- and fifth-grade math scores, like the scores of fourth- and fifth-graders statewide, suffered in 2014, and districts that really embraced Common Core suffered more, Kramer said.

The district phased in Common Core with kindergarten and first grade two years ago and second through eighth grades last year. Teachers have spent the last three summers training in the Common Core expectations.

The state assigns schools letter grades on a point system. Half of the points are from students’ AIMS pass rates. The other half measures academic growth, among all students and with a focus on the lowest 25 percent. Schools can also pick up points from students whose first language isn’t English passing the language proficiency assessment, and by reducing the number of students in the lowest AIMS category, Falls Far Below. 

It was the academic growth portion where Marana took a hit, Kramer said. And that’s because of how deeply vested it had become in Common Core.

In other words, districts that didn’t transform as deeply into Common Core were rewarded last school year because the AIMS test didn’t measure the new standards, Kramer said.

But he said eventually it will even out, and Marana could actually be ahead of the game. 

 “We’re not overly worried about it,” Kramer said. “We’re trying to do the right thing for kids and our parents.”

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