It’s the beginning of the school year. Students are settling into the school routine, and teachers are scoping out their new students. Meanwhile, last year’s state test scores have been announced, and they’re considerably lower than the year before. It’s a good time to take stock of Arizona education, not to praise or condemn our schools, but to take an honest, sober look at where we are.
Let’s start with the results of the new AzMERIT test. The passing rate is way down from what it was in previous years when we used the AIMS test. But that doesn’t mean students’ achievement has dropped. It just means the state gave a tougher test this year and decided to raise the score it takes to pass. It’s like taking a test where 90 out of 100 earns an A and raising the cut score to 95. Obviously, the number of As will go down.
But even though the new, lower scores don’t say anything new about student achievement, I expect to hear the anti-public school crowd shouting about how lousy Arizona schools are, especially our lowest scoring schools. But the truth is, with some exceptions, our schools aren’t failing. In fact, they’re performing pretty much as we should expect them to.
But if our schools aren’t failing, the question is, why do some students and some schools continue to do so poorly on state tests? A look at the schools around the Tucson area will give you the answer. If you want to find the highest achieving schools, the ones that receive A grades from the state, look in areas where the average household income is $80,000 or higher. If you’re looking for schools with D grades, they’re in areas where the average household income is $24,000 or less. Income and test scores go up and down together. That’s true here in Tucson, around the country and around the world.
To see why, let’s divide students’ lives into two worlds — their lives out of school and their lives in school. According to a number of studies, students’ out-of-school lives have three times as much effect on their school achievement as what goes on inside the school walls. You can predict state test results with reasonable accuracy by looking at students’ family income, food insecurity, the availability of early education, the level of violence in the community and the number of times a family moves. The fewer problems, the higher the test scores. The more problems, the lower the test scores. Sure, teachers can move the needle a bit, which is why some teachers and schools are more successful than others with similar students. But even the best teachers — and many of them work in schools in low-income areas — can only move the needle so far.
By the way, everything I just said is true of charter schools and private schools as well as traditional public schools. There’s very little difference in student achievement in the three types of schools when you compare similar students.
So that’s the situation in Arizona. Hard-working teachers are educating the students in front of them, and they’re doing a pretty good job of it. The results, unfortunately, fall a little shy of what similar students are doing elsewhere in the country — not a lot, but it’s a significant difference. You can chalk that up to our bottom-of-the-barrel school funding, which means teachers have too many students in their classrooms and too little in the way of support services and supplies. Lay that problem at the feet of our Republican-majority legislature that refuses to fund our schools adequately, not our overworked, underpaid teachers.
We shouldn’t blame our teachers if they don’t turn all our students into high achievers. There are too many social and economic problems out there and too little schools can do to fix them. Instead, let’s give our teachers the respect, credit and support they deserve for the job they do.