Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

Arizona must learn to live with average students, schools

The state Department of Education this past month released the latest batch of student, teacher and school accountability data as required by the past decade’s mad rush of legislation to force schools to prove American students actually learned something in public school.

And the verdict? According to the AIMS test results and the federal Adequate Yearly Progress data, most Arizona students and schools are doing OK. Our students’ test scores are right around the national average of about 70 percent of students able to read and write at the tested grade level and 60 percent of students able to do basic math at the tested level. Which means that on average, Arizona’s public school students are, well, average.

That should be reason to rejoice, considering that Arizona is the cellar dweller among the states when it comes to per pupil funding of public schools.

One could argue that Arizona is the champion of producing decent students with meager funding.

But no one’s arguing that.

Nope, we’re devastated by the 30 percent who can’t read and write well and the 40 percent who can’t do math and consumed with blaming each other for the dismal state of public education.

High stakes standardized tests were supposed to be the answer. Penalize students for failing to pass tests and they’ll be motivated to learn, and penalize schools for failing to educate students and they’ll be motivated to jettison bad teachers and administrators and replace them with better ones to get those scores up.

But, as we’ve seen repeatedly across the country the past few years, including in Arizona, high stakes tests have mostly motivated cheating, which has made suspect any sudden improvement in student test results.

And as the tests show what students don’t know, states constantly tweak them each year to tease out better results, thereby making the tests scientifically and mathematically worthless as a tool to measure actual student progress year over year.

Yet despite the worthless data, states continue to use them to beat up school districts and teachers and demand they do better.

Then they cut their funding.

But while we argue about money and tests we avoid discussing the real problem behind poor student performance: Poverty.

When you parse the test data for income level, you find that students from affluent families do quite well on standardized tests while students from poor families perform poorly. Arizona’s school labeling system proves the point. The school districts with the best ratings are all in wealthy areas while the districts with the worst labels are all in the poorest areas of the state.

Too often the champions of accountability try to argue that the teachers and administrators at the good schools are good and the teachers and administrators at bad schools are bad. Witness the recent mass firings of teachers at failing schools in the Sunnyside and Tucson school districts. Are we to believe that if you were to take all the students from Palo Verde High school and send them to Catalina Foothills High School without changing the incomes of the students’ families that the test scores at CFHS would remain as high as they are?

It’s not that poor kids are dumber than rich kids, it’s that rich kids tend to have parents who are highly educated, live in neighborhoods with low crime rates, have families with lower rates of drug and alcohol abuse, have families than can afford preschools and after-school clubs, sports and activities, are well fed and clothed, attend schools with active, enriched parent teacher organizations and booster clubs that pay for teacher aides and many other amenities not included in school budgets, and who have dozens of other advantages not available or afforded children from poorer families.

In other words, rich kids can spend more time studying while poor kids spend most of their time surviving.

Demanding schools do better and imposing rigorous testing regimes is easy. Solving poverty is hard, especially in this current political climate of every man for himself. But until we do, we’ll have to learn to live with our kids and schools being average.

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