Poor scores on the state’s new learning assessment test, AzMERIT, leave officials in a quandary about setting a cutoff to pass.
Arizona must soon decide on the reading scores its third-graders must reach on the state’s standardized test before moving on to fourth grade.
But determining that benchmark for the rigorous new test won’t be easy. Forty-three percent of third-graders were “minimally proficient” in reading and would have been at risk of being held back, according to the latest scores.
The state is required by law to use the statewide standardized test as a “promotion gate” for third-grade students to the fourth grade.
The law wasn’t enforced this year because the scores came in too late. But it will be applied to the third-graders who take the test this spring.
Choosing a cutoff score for struggling readers won’t be simple for AzMERIT, the state’s new standardized test.
Arizona’s former state learning assessment, AIMS, was widely considered to have been much less rigorous. That much was underscored in a state Department of Education report that examined the “grim” possibility that more students could be at risk of being held back a grade under AzMERIT.
The report, which was discussed by the state Board of Education at its monthly meeting Monday, listed recommendations for establishing the promotion gate under Arizona’s Move On When Reading law, which will be enforced again this testing cycle after the one-year hiatus.
The report also acknowledged the state has little leeway in getting its students around the requirement partly because the state does not have an alternative assessment aimed specifically at measuring reading proficiency.
AIMS and AzMERIT have painted two different pictures of reading proficiency among third-graders.
Under AIMS, third-graders who scored in the test’s lowest performance level of “falls far below” — about 600 students during the 2013-14 school year — could have been held back.
Had the same rules applied to AzMERIT last year, it would have meant more than 40 percent of third-graders who scored in the test’s lowest performance level of “minimally proficient” could have been held back. More than 86,000 third-graders took AzMERIT last year.
Most students failed the inaugural AzMERIT test last spring. Eleven percent of the state’s third-graders scored in the highest performance level of “highly proficient,” 30 percent were considered “proficient,” another 16 percent were “partially proficient” and the rest — 43 percent — scored “minimally proficient.”
Educators have said it would not be feasible to have the same cutoffs that applied to AIMS apply to AzMERIT, which includes both reading and writing portions.
“If we were to set our decision point at ‘minimally proficient,’ 40 percent of our students would be retained, and that is a tremendous challenge for schools to be able to support,” said Leila Williams, the state Department of Education’s associate superintendent for assessment and accountability.
The Board of Education will decide the cutoff this spring before the scores are distributed.
The Department of Education’s report recommendations include:
- Creating an alternative assessment, like North Carolina, that focuses on measuring reading literacy.
- Gradually increasing the Move On When Reading cut score on AzMERIT each year, so that districts “are able to focus their resources and programs on those students most in need of intervention first,” according to the report.
Arizona is one of seven states that has a retention requirement and the only one with its policy “exclusively tied” to its standardized test and with no other viable alternative assessment, the report said.
English-language learners and special-needs students in the past have been exempt from Move On When Reading, signed into law by Gov. Jan Brewer in 2010.
Charles Tack, spokesman for the state Department of Education, said the report was commissioned to help the board find “the balance between what’s practical and what is doable for schools compared to (whether) students really have the tools they need to be able to read at grade level when they move.”
Joe O’Reilly, executive director for student achievement support at Mesa Public Schools, said the state should expect to see incremental gains on AzMERIT performance in the coming years.
Those gains won’t be enough, though, to realistically set the promotion gate the same way it was set under AIMS.
“We can’t retain 40 percent of the students,” O’Reilly said, “but we need to intervene with 40 percent of the students who we label as ‘minimally proficient’.”