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Arizona Schools Fail Federal Standards

In October, the state didn't label any of Mesa's schools "underperforming," and honored 13 schools as "excelling," but on Friday Arizona's largest school district failed to pass federal education standards.

State officials call the district standards tough, even unfair, but also helpful in finding individual students who need the most help.

Mesa is hardly in bad company. It joins more than half of the Valley's districts that failed to make what the feds called Adequate Yearly Progress, including Scottsdale, Paradise Valley, Chandler and Phoenix's Alhambra and Washington districts.

Statewide, about 40 percent of traditional districts and a third of charter owners failed to bring all their students up to federal standards.

Barb Mozdzen, a mother of three who lives in Chandler, said there must be something wrong with the federal standards, because there's nothing wrong with her children's schools. Mozdzen has one Chandler graduate, a high-schooler and an elementary student.

"I'm stunned," Mozdzen said. "I look at what my kids are learning and I say: 'Wow.' I have faith in this district."

Arizona schools chief Tom Horne urged parents to rely on the state, not the federal government, for an accurate picture of their neighborhood schools.

"This illustrates that parents need to focus on the state labels to determine how well their children's schools are doing," Horne said. "Regardless of which system one focuses on, the important thing is that the schools will be required to bring students to proficiency in reading, writing and mathematics."

So why did some of Arizona's best districts get labeled inadequate by federal education officials?

Federal standards require entire districts to improve AIMS reading and math scores, a state test taken in third, fifth and eighth grades and in high school. The feds also measure the districts on attendance and graduation rates. But here's the sticking point: The feds require district students in eight separate student groups to meet the standards. The groups include five ethnic groups: African-American, White, Latino, Asian and Native American. The other three groups are students learning English, students living in poverty and special-education students.

If any of these groups, in any grade, are lagging in test scores, attendance or high school graduation rates, the entire district fails to make Adequate Yearly Progress.

So, in Mesa, eighth-grade English language learners didn't score high enough on the eighth-grade AIMS math test to keep the district from failing. Paradise Valley testing director Roger Freeman said they're also struggling to improve eighth-grade AIMS scores.

"It does help us identify some of our weakest and strongest areas so we can target them," Freeman said.

Failing traditional districts

Of 56 traditional districts in Maricopa County for which data are available, 29 did not meet federal learning goals, called Adequate Yearly Progress.

Failing charter districts

Of 129 charter owners in Maricopa County for which data are available, 37 did not meet federal learning goals, called Adequate Yearly Progress.

The state named more than half of Scottsdale Unified District schools "excelling," but the district failed to meet federal standards. Spokesman Tom Herrmann calls it a shame that small failings can sink an entire district in the federal formula.

"It can be very confusing for parents," Herrmann said. "You have the state saying these are great schools and then you look at this and it raises questions."

The measurements the feds use to determine the pass/fail label are negotiable by each state's Department of Education, so it is impossible to make state-to-state comparisons based on Adequate Yearly Progress. State officials also can grant exceptions to districts that fail on one or more of the federal standards. For example, the feds require a high school to test 95 percent of its students to pass Adequate Yearly Progress. But because Arizona did not allow for testing make-up dates, many high schools didn't make that standard. In those cases, the state granted an exception.

Federal pass/fail standards are tougher than the ones used by Arizona officials to label individual schools each October as excelling, highly performing, performing and underperforming. State labels are based on how well all students at a school perform on the state AIMS test, the national Stanford 9 test, as well as the school's attendance and graduation rates. But those state measurements are not applied to the eight separate student groups, and nearly 800 schools were deemed too small to receive a state label.

Districts that don't make federal Adequate Yearly Progress must provide state officials with an improvement plan. If a school or district fails the federal standards three consecutive years, state officials can force a change in curriculum or personnel.

There was scheduled to be more information online about Arizona districts and charter school contractors that failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress at www.ade.state.az.us/azlearns.

— Pat Kossan and Ryan Konig
State schools fail U.S. standards
Arizona Republic


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