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Late last month the Arizona Department of Education released the state’s standardized test scores. Across the state test scores fell, something state and local education officials expected because of student learning loss during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“Compared to a couple of years ago, we are seeing some learning loss, but most schools are seeing that,” said Safford Unified School District Superintendent AJ Taylor.

Statewide, test results showed a 4% decrease in students’ English language arts scores and an 11% decrease in math test scores compared to the 2018/2019 scores. Thirty-eight percent of students across the state passed the English section of the test while 31% passed the math section. Eighty-four percent of students across the state took the English section of the test while 86% took the math section.

At SUSD, 38% of students passed the English section and 33% passed the math section.

Taylor, and other local school superintendents, chalked up their test scores to students learning loss from the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting months of distance, online, learning.

Although SUSD’s test scores are a little better than the state average, Taylor said the district is still looking at ways to tackle that learning loss and improve their test scores for next year by possibly expanding the district’s current after school math program for students in all grade levels and other projects.

“We’re looking at ways in and outside the school to address learning loss,” Taylor said. Especially for students with special education needs.

The test, which is now called AzM2, but used to be called AZMerit, is given to students in grades three through eight, then grade 10. The test is meant to measure student progress throughout their primary and into their secondary school years. In the past, the state Education Department also used to assign letter grades to schools to rank them against other schools, but that practice was suspended last year by state lawmakers because of the pandemic.

No comparison

In a statement, Morgan Dick, the public information officer for the state education department, warned people that “ comparing results of SY20/21 to previous years should be done with extreme caution,” because of the effects on student learning loss because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and because in past years, over 95% of students took the test. Last year federal requirements for student participation in the tests were paused.

“We know that the most effective teaching and learning happens in the classroom when students are learning with their peers and a highly qualified educator. I am deeply concerned about what another school year disrupted by COVID-19 will mean for our students. We must get the virus under control and use proven mitigation measures in schools so safe in-person learning can be maintained throughout the year,” wrote Kathy Hoffman, the superintendent of public instruction for the state.

“We weighed in the distance learning and the effects of COVID, although there’s room for improvement… we’re pleased with our results,” said David Woodall, the superintendent of Morenci Unified School District. “We’re fairly confident that we can improve learning if we can keep in person learning going.”

Forty-four percent of Morenci students passed the English portion while 40% of students passed the math portion of the test.

To improve scores, Woodall said the district will implement a week-long intensive instruction tutoring program during their fall break. They’ll also be hiring more teachers using money from the various federal COVID-19 aid packages.

“We know things that work with remediating students. We will just work on and enhance those things,” Woodall said.

Pima Unified School Superintendent Sean Rickert said the fact Pima’s students spent more time in class than out is reflected in their scores.

“Pima performed better than we did years before and that speaks to the value of having kids in school,” Rickert said.

Thirty-four percent of Pima students passed the English section of the test, while 28% passed the math section of the test.

Efforts to improve

To bring up test scores, Rickert said the district has done a lot, like hiring new teachers and updating their curriculum in the last two years.

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“It’s hard to gauge how a school is doing because of test scores,” Rickert said. “When you’re looking at one test, it’s hard to reach a broad consensus.”

Rickert said the district values and takes seriously the data presented in the AzM2 scores, but they rely heavily on their own internal district test that gets them better access to individual student data than the state test does to decide how and where to put resources to “make sure every student is successful,” Rickert said.

The publicly available AzM2 scores break the test scores down by grade level, for example, 61% of Pima’s fourth grade English class passed the English section of the test. The data even shows test scores by subgroupings of students, like by number of homeless students in a district, male and female students and different ethnic identities, but it doesn’t show individual student data.

Rickert said the most valuable thing about the test is knowing that in person schooling is valuable “and that’s something we should keep in mind whatever happens next,” Rickert said.

For other district superintendents, the data and results of the test showed something a little different.

“To be quite honest, I was disappointed, but I know there’s more variables in test results,” said Matt Petersen, the superintendent of Thatcher Unified School District. “It’s not as good as one would hope if you’re in school all year.”

Forty-three percent of Thatcher students passed both the English portion of the test and the math section.

Petersen said the district’s test scores, although they’re higher than the state average, show there are other factors in education and teaching that need addressing, not just if students were in in-person school year round.

Different methods

To figure out how to improve test scores, Petersen said the district would examine their own district test scores that they give up to three times a year as well as organizing professional teaching committees for teachers in the district to discuss the test results and brainstorm ideas to improve test scores. The district will also look to update their English and math curriculum as well as starting up summer school programs.

“It was a shocker for us,” said Shane Hawkins, Fort Thomas Unified School District’s superintendent. “We got a lot of work to do.”

Just under 7% of Fort Thomas students passed the English portion of the test while 5% passed the math portion. In 2019, those numbers were 16% and 20%, respectively.

To address the learning loss, Hawkins said the district will try to tackle the situation from all angles, not just educationally, but socially too.

To do that, the district is using their portion of federal COVID-19 relief money to upgrade their curriculum, hire a reading interventionist as well as a social and emotional counselor for students.

“That may be what students need,” Hawkins said. “We’re trying to tackle it from all angles.”

The district might take two to three years to recover from the learning loss caused by the pandemic, Hawkins said.

“It’s the nature of education now,” he said.

The pandemic, Hawkins said, “put a significant delay in where students are and we have to work to overcome that.”

Eldon Merrell, Superintendent of Duncan Unified School District said he didn’t know enough about the district’s test scores yet. “I know they’re not as good as we want them to be,” Merrell said.

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