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Pima County students lag rest of Arizona in passing standardized math tests
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Pima County students lag rest of Arizona in passing standardized math tests

Public school students statewide made slight improvements on this year’s standardized assessment tests, which included AzMERIT, the ACT and the SAT. The number of students passing the annual English and math tests improved by 1 percentage point.

Despite the slight improvement, only 42% of students passed both the English and math tests, which they took during the 2018-19 school year.

Pima County students overall met the state average for the English Language Arts assessments, which is a 42% passing rate for both English and math, but fell 2 percentage points below average for math.

Like the state as a whole, race and socioeconomic status factored heavily into test scores — a consideration that many say is a problem with AzMERIT and other standardized tests.

For example, only 19% of homeless students in Pima County passed the English tests and 17% passed math. The percentage of children with limited English proficiency who passed was in the single digits for both tests. Students who are eligible for free and reduced lunch had 30% and 29% passing rates for English and math, respectively.

A recent study by The Center for Education Policy Analysis argues that achievement gaps on standardized test scores are not about race but poverty. There has long been a connection between income and race, which is evidenced by a recent U.S. Census Bureau report that looked at racial disparities of homeowners nationwide.

White and Asian households had more wealth than black and Hispanic households. White homeowners had a median household wealth of $139,300, and Asians had $156,300 compared with $12,780 for black homeowners and $19,990 for Hispanic homeowners, the report found.

On Pima County’s standardized test results, Asian and white students were about three times more likely to pass than the lowest performing racial subgroup, Native Americans.

Asian students were most likely to pass the tests at 64% and 70% passing English and math, respectively. White students’ passing rates were 56% and 55%. Hispanic students’ rates came next at 34% and 32%, followed by African-American students at 31% and 26%. Native American students’ passing rates were 20% and 18% in English and math, respectively.

While passing the standardized tests doesn’t affect whether a student is promoted to the next grade, it does dictate a large portion of schools’ A through F letter grades issued by the state.

Of Pima County’s largest nine districts, the only three where more than half the student body passed both English and math were Catalina Foothills, Vail Unified and Tanque Verde, from highest to lowest percentage in that order. These districts also have the area’s lowest poverty rates, according to 2018 district spending reports filed with the state auditor general.

Catalina Foothills’ poverty rate was 6% in 2017, and its current passing rates are 66% in English and 67% in math, respectively. Sunnyside Unified is the school district with the lowest number of passing scores at 26% in English and 28% in math. It is the district with the highest poverty rate in Pima County at 30%.

Tucson Unified, the county’s largest and most diverse district, was second to last with 33% of students passing English and 31% passing math. TUSD also has a high poverty rate — 23% — which is above the state average of 19%.

Both Sunnyside and TUSD improved over last year, with 2% to 3% more students passing both tests in TUSD and 1% to 2% more students passing in Sunnyside.

The two local districts that stood out as seemingly lacking a correlation between poverty and passing rates were Flowing Wells and Marana Unified.

Flowing Wells came in with the fourth-highest passing rates despite having a 27% poverty rate. Conversely, Marana saw the third-lowest passing rates despite having a lower poverty rate, at 11%, than both Flowing Wells and Amphitheater Public Schools.

This year’s change to include the ACT and the SAT along with the AzMERIT as a choice for high school grades put Arizona in danger of losing $340 million in federal cash because the U.S. Department of Education determined the state was no longer complying with federal requirements on standardized tests.

Therefore, the Arizona Department of Education is making changes to get into compliance with federal law while still allowing some choice to schools and districts.

The switch to the ACT made sense for certain districts because it only takes a few hours to administer, while AzMERIT takes multiple days, according to Arizona Daily Star archives.

For the test in spring 2020, all 10th graders will be required to take AzMERIT to bring the state into compliance. But along with AzMERIT, which will get a name change, districts and schools can additionally choose one of three standardized tests: ACT, Cambridge or Pearson.

Contact reporter Danyelle Khmara at or 573-4223. On Twitter: @DanyelleKhmara

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