Students across the state struggled to make the grade on Arizona’s new AzMERIT assessment, but results released Monday show that disadvantaged, minority and special-needs students fared far worse.

Only about one-third of students across the state earned passing scores on the test administered last school year. The test measures proficiency in math and English language arts for students ranging from third grade through high school.

Results at three of the nine Tucson-area districts mostly mirrored the statewide results. Another three districts — Catalina Foothills, Vail and Tanque Verde — outperformed the state by at least 15 percentage points.

Tucson’s two largest districts, TUSD and Sunnyside, fell short of the state average, as did Flowing Wells.

Just as statewide data showed, local results for poor, minority and special-needs students were dismal.

Across Arizona and in Pima County, about a quarter of poor students passed the math and English language arts tests. The same was true for Hispanic students, even though they make up the majority of the population for K-12 public schools.

Students classified as English-language learners and those with disabilities had even less success. Only 2 percent of ELL students passed English language arts and 6 percent passed math. About 12 percent of disabled students made the grade on either assessment.

In the Sunnyside Unified School District, where 16 percent of students passed AzMERIT, the vast majority of its nearly 17,000 students are either classified as English-language learners or have gone through the program, said Pam Betten, director of curriculum and instruction.

Even those who have been reclassified as proficient by state standards continue to struggle with communicating in writing and understanding academic language, which Betten believes played a part in results she called “disappointing.”

There is now a heavy emphasis at Sunnyside on language development early on and an effort to go beyond analyzing school data, she said. The district is going classroom-by-classroom to ensure the level of academic rigor called for in the test is what is being delivered to students.

“We’re not about making excuses,” Betten said. “Of course we’d like our data to be higher, but we learn what we can from it and focus on creating situations where students can think critically and problem-solve.”

The educational shortcomings for these subgroups is not new, and efforts to fix it continue.

The Arizona Department of Education is looking to support students and is also working to develop partnerships in affected communities that can provide additional help.

“This didn’t happen overnight; it’s a problem that has developed over time,” said ADE spokesman Charles Tack. “But we are committed to taking the steps to turn it around because the goal is that every student in Arizona, no matter where they live, their ethnicity or their special need, that they all have a chance to succeed.”

Focus on spring

Armed with the long-overdue state data, Tucson-area school districts have started dissecting the information in hopes of better outcomes in spring testing.

Seven percent of Pima County students scored highly proficient on the English language arts portion of the test and 10 percent fell into that category for math. About 40 percent scored in the lowest level, minimally proficient.

Tucson’s two largest school districts, Tucson Unified and Sunnyside, had the lowest percentage of students passing the math and English tests.

TUSD, which serves more than 48,000 students, had one-quarter passing math and 28 percent passing English language arts.

The highest performing Tucson district was Catalina Foothills, with 63 percent of students passing both sections of the test — well above the state average.

“What these results tell us is that we are on the right track,” said Mary Jo Conery, associate superintendent of CFSD. “The AzMERIT test goes beyond the previous bubble test by measuring a wide range of real-world skills, like critical thinking, problem solving and analysis.”

The Tanque Verde and Vail school districts, which traditionally join Catalina Foothills as top performers, were close behind.

Tanque Verde had the second-highest English language arts performance with 52 percent passing, and Vail had the second-highest math performance with 58 percent passing.

Vail Superintendent Calvin Baker is particularly proud of the math results, saying that is where the district has focused its efforts, given that is where students most often struggle and what contributes to students dropping out of school.

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“We are really pleased to see the success reflecting the focused effort,” he said.

The efforts will continue not only on the part of educators, who have become more comfortable with the new content and are now refining their practice, but for students who have had to adjust to new ways of thinking.

“This is a process, and just as we don’t expect children to grow in height and weight to adolescent size in a few months, we can’t expect our students to grow academically at an unreasonable rate,” said Vail Assistant Superintendent Debbie Hedgepeth. “The importance of time is something we shouldn’t lose track of.”

For Baker, though it may not be evident in the scores, he believes students are better off.

“The changes we have been making are not just for our students to do better on a test,” Baker said. “We’re making these changes because we truly believe that our students will be better- prepared for college and careers.”

Flowing Wells, a high-poverty school district that has traditionally fared well on state tests despite its makeup, was surprised to find its performance below the Arizona average.

The district has invested heavily in training and professional development, but says it has fallen short in the area of resources.

The district has been hesitant to replace materials from 2004 due to the lack of clarity on where Arizona’s standards are headed, said Assistant Superintendent Kevin Stoltzfus. Just a few years after adopting Common Core standards, the state decided to sever ties and change as it sees fit.

Flowing Wells officials say they think focusing on text complexity and problem-solving in math will move more of its 5,700 students in the right direction.

“Flowing Wells is constantly working to improve and get better, and I feel confident we will see better results,” Stoltzfus said.

TUSD has a history of underperforming on state tests, but since AzMERIT was first administered, much has changed, said Superintendent H.T. Sanchez.

The district has a consistent curriculum in place, something he said was previously lacking. TUSD has also rolled out district-created benchmark testing closely aligned with AzMERIT, which has recently shown better results than reported Monday.

While TUSD leadership, principals and teachers are working to break down the test scores to identify strengths and weaknesses, Sanchez says TUSD will continue to adhere to the curriculum it has designed, which was developed to stand up to any assessment.

Contact reporter Alexis Huicochea at ahuicochea@tucson.com or 573-4175. On Twitter: @AlexisHuicochea

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