The decision by three Tucson districts to dump the AzMERIT test in high schools raises questions about how they will be graded in comparison with schools that still use it.

It’s standardized test season, but three local school districts won’t be using AZMerit to assess their high schoolers this spring for the first time since the test’s inception in 2016.

Tucson’s largest school district, TUSD, along with the Flowing Wells and Tanque Verde school districts are ditching AZMerit, the standardized test which largely determines a school’s state-assigned letter grade, in favor of college admissions tests like the ACT and SAT, thanks to a law passed by the Legislature last March.

The law, permitted under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, authorized Arizona public school districts and charter schools to choose their accountability exam from a “menu of assessments.” This is the first year the state is offering the choice.

The menu includes college-prep tests like the ACT and SAT, as well as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams, according to the Arizona Department of Education’s website.

Students in Grades 3 through 8 will continue to be tested using AZMerit in Arizona district and charter schools.

The state’s move away from testing centralization could delegitimize the state’s A-through-F letter grading system, according to Audrey Amrein-Beardsley, a school accountability researcher at Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.

Until now, AZMerit test scores and changes in those scores from year to year largely determined what letter grade a school would receive. Most of the menu tests are one-time tests that students would take during their junior year.

The difference in the subject matter of the tests and frequency with which they are administered makes measuring growth and accurately comparing AZMerit and non-AZMerit schools impossible, Amrein-Beardsley said.

“It’s like comparing apples to watermelons,” she said.

A LACK OF ACCOUNTABILITY

The State Board of Education itself hasn’t yet voted on how to adjust the school grading system now that some Arizona school districts are opting out of AZMerit, according to Alicia Williams, the board’s executive director.

Twenty-six Arizona school districts and charter schools have opted to use a menu-approved assessment over AZMerit, according to the board’s website.

The board has assembled multiple committees to research new accountability models, Beardsley said, but it hasn’t come to a consensus because no model proposed by a committee has been able to compare individual student growth, since they are taking different exams.

“Our impression was that the people they want serving on the (committee) are not telling them what they want to hear, so they continuously have problems with the (committee),” Amrein-Beardsley said.

Many board members seemed frustrated again with the recommendations the committee outlined during a study session about the grading system at a board meeting last Monday.

The committee’s findings mirrored Amrein-Beardsley’s: measuring student growth, given the variance in exams, isn’t feasible, defensible or backed by research, at the moment.

“We’ve been at this since October,” said committee member Janice Palmer, the vice president and director of policy at the Helios Education Foundation. “We just don’t see how we do it this year.”

Vail Superintendent Calvin Baker, a member of the board, questioned the committee’s inability to find an accountability model that factors in student growth at the February meeting.

In an earlier interview with the Arizona Daily Star, Baker said measuring growth is an essential function of the grading system.

“There must be accountability for growth. Otherwise, we incentivize schools to pursue high-achieving students and to avoid low-achieving students,” Baker said.

He said such accountability is possible, even if students at different schools are taking different exams.

“I think we have to think about how growth is calculated in a different way,” Baker said. “So we aren’t thinking about it strictly as a statistical analysis, but more as we think about high school or college GPA rankings.”

The board declined to comment about potential changes to the accountability system since it hasn’t voted on which model to adopt. The committee advised the board at its last meeting to adopt a model that wouldn’t take student growth based on test scores into account.

A Department of Education spokesman said the department is working with education stakeholders and the Governor’s Office to provide answers to any “unresolved questions” as soon as possible, but would not comment further.

TO SWITCH, OR NOT TO SWITCH

Leaders from local districts expressed mixed opinions on the menu of assessments.

TUSD and Flowing Wells said transitioning to the ACT made logistical sense. AZMerit testing takes four to seven hours over the course of multiple days, while ACT testing takes only a couple hours out of one.

Students tend to take the ACT more seriously than AZMerit, TUSD Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo said, because they associate it with their ability to get into college.

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Students tend to blow off AZMerit because it isn’t a high school graduation requirement and it doesn’t impact their college acceptance prospects, Trujillo said.

TUSD has required juniors to take the ACT for the last seven years, according to Trujillo. The student participation data for ACT and AZMerit solidified the district’s decision to ditch AZMerit, he said.

“We’ve been able to compare attendance rates, student participation rates, completion rates. And the ACT wins every year,” Trujillo said. “And that’s a testament to how relevant and important ACT is, compared to AZMerit.”

Trujillo is not concerned about possible changes the state could make to the accountability model to account for the menu of assessments.

“The ACT is the national norm for reference exams,” Trujillo said. “We are looking to really measure ourselves against how our kids are comparing to kids across the nation.”

Juniors at Star Academic High School in the Sunnyside Unified School District will also take the ACT instead of AZMerit this year, said district spokesman Victor Mercado.

This will prevent test burnout among Star students, who are often making up missed high school credits, Mercado said. The rest of the Sunnyside district — the second-largest in the Tucson area — will take AZMerit, though.

“AZMerit is in our curriculum, our benchmarks are really aligned to AZMerit,” Mercado said. “We weren’t in a position where we were ready to make a change of that scale districtwide. ... There’s a lot that’s tied to that exam.”

Most local districts elected to keep AZMerit.

Representatives from the Vail, Catalina Foothills, Marana, Amphitheater and Sahuarita school districts attributed their decision to stick with AZMerit to maintaining consistency at their schools and with the majority of schools in Arizona.

“We know how AZMerit works,” Vail’s Calvin Baker said. “We opted to go with what is known rather than unknown.”

Vail, like TUSD, has required its juniors to take the ACT for the last decade. Keeping AZMerit testing allows the district to hold teachers accountable through two avenues at all grade levels, not just junior year with one test like the ACT.

“The other critical issue is that AZMerit is directly lined up with Arizona standards and the ACT is not,” he said.

The Board of Education has not indicated when it will vote on the new accountability system.

Contact reporter Brenna Bailey at bbailey@tucson.com or 520-573-4279. On Twitter: @brennanonymous.

Reporter

Brenna explains how national, state and local K-12 education issues impact Tucson schools. She's a proud product of Arizona public schools. Send her news tips, story ideas and existential life questions at bbailey@tucson.com.