A new law and executive order attempt to address the dilemma of gauging student growth and school performance during the pandemic. The State-mandated AZ Merit (AZM2) will be given, but the results will be used differently in this year that has been so impacted by COVID. 

The State assessment measures English language arts and math in grades 3 – 8 and grade 10; and science in grades 5, 8 and 11. In the past, each public school’s results on the Merit test translated, along with factors such as high school graduation rates, into a letter grade A – F. 

Last year, when schools statewide closed in March, the test was not given at all. This year, the test will be administered, scored, and reported to districts, for their use in planning instruction for the 2021-2022 school year. Letter grades will not be assigned by the state to individual schools.

Normally, the AZ Merit test, and resulting school letter grade, can determine a school’s eligibility for additional funding and increase the scrutiny it comes under from the State Department of Education. In his Executive Order, Governor Ducey made a point of saying that the letter grade program will resume next year. This practice, which is common nationwide, has been controversial. While schools do receive additional support and potential funding when they receive low grades, the connotation of failure weighs heavily on professional staff and even students. 

An ongoing challenge has been to determine how much poor performance reflects the quality of the school and staff, and what is more a result of factors that can put students behind, such as poverty or the language spoken in the home before students enter school. Some education advocates maintain that those struggling schools deserves support, but not fault-finding. 

The Governor also issued an executive order on Feb. 15, directing the State Department of Education to analyze the data to understand the degree of learning loss that has occurred over the past year or so. 

The executive order states, “The Board shall place an emphasis on understanding how the data impacts students of various demographic subgroups. The Board shall produce a report on their findings, which may include recommendations for evidence-based strategies to mitigate the impact of learning loss” by November of the coming year.

Governor Ducey cited data showing that, when tested last fall using other measures (AZM2 is given only in the spring), students showed an average loss in mathematical learning of three months and a 1 1/2 month loss in reading after Arizona mandated that schools shut their doors and move to distance learning for the rest of the school year. The AZM2 test will give them further data about the extent to which this “COVID slide” has continued in this school year. Results will be released in July.

Local educational leaders expected that the tests would still be given and think it is appropriate that the data be used strictly for instructional planning. Patagonia Superintendent and Principal Kenny Hayes reported that testing that teachers have been conducting throughout the year have given them good data on where students are. “We are adjusting next year’s schedules to include time for intervention for those who have fallen behind, while offering enrichment for students who were able to make good progress this year,” he said. Patagonia Schools have spent much of the year either in distance or hybrid learning models. And, as has been common across the country since last spring, a “digital divide” has hampered schooling for children unable to access the internet from home.

Mary Faley, Superintendent and Principal of Elgin School, said that she had hoped this would be the conclusion the State would reach. “I support giving the test, but to grade the schools this year would be wrong. Each district conducted school the way it saw fit, ever since the opening last fall, based on their communities and their rates of infection.” Elgin School has offered in-person and distance learning options throughout most of the 2020-2021 school year. 

But it is not just being on campus vs. learning from home that has affected learning. As Anna Coleman, Elgin third grade teacher, said, “This has been a stressful time, for kids, parents and school staff. The emotional impacts of a pandemic affect learning, as well.” 

Nisa Talavera, a mother of two students, said she “has watched the spark for learning literally drain from my children. Most days the internet doesn’t work well, and there is never a sense of accomplishment for these kids.” Talavera feels that any benchmark tests given to the students at this point would “only hinder them. There is no way to accurately test what these kids have or have not learned over the last year.” 

The State requires that the AZM2 be administered on school campuses, and has increased the usual window for administration into May. As Superintendent Hayes said, “We will work with our families to figure out how to accomplish the testing in the safest and easiest way possible.”