CASA GRANDE — Casa Grande Elementary School District’s AzMERIT scores are not where district Superintendent JoEtta Gonzales wants them. However, there are signs of growth, she said.
The Arizona Department of Education released AzMERIT scores earlier this month. The percentage of Casa Grande Elementary School students passing the statewide English and math tests continues to hover between 24 and 37%, depending on the grade and the subject. That does not include students in advanced eighth grade math. The scores continue to be below the average percentage of state and county students passing the tests.
According to ADE, the average percentage of state elementary and middle school students passing the tests ranges from 38% and 52%, depending on grade and subject. The average percentage of students in Pinal County who passed the tests this year ranges from 28 to 45% depending on grade and subject. Those percentages exclude students taking advanced eighth grade math such as algebra and geometry.
At the Casa Grande Union High School District, the percentage of students passing AzMERIT math and English ranged between 17 and 30%. The percentage of state high school students passing math and English ranges from 33% to 40%. The percentage of county high school students passing math and English ranges from 21% to 28%.
However, this year, high schools were allowed to use scores from the ACT, SAT, Advanced Placement tests and International Baccalaureate exams to assess students in lieu of AzMERIT. Casa Grande Union High School District opted to stay with AzMERIT this year.
The scores don’t tell the entire story of the elementary district, Gonzales said. They “are a snapshot of a lager story that is to be told about each student’s unique learning needs and potential. They do not tell the complete story of student achievement.”
Gonzales said the district’s students, teachers and parents face many challenges when it comes to AzMERIT. About 80% of the students in the district receive free or reduced price lunch from the National School Lunch Program. The program is designed to make sure that low-income kids get enough to eat during the day.
Many of the district’s buildings are older and in need of repair, which can make it difficult for students to learn, she said.
There are students who have difficulty speaking, reading and understanding English. Even if a student knows the subject and tests well in class, it’s hard for them to pass a test if they can’t understand the language the test is written in, Gonzales said.
The test results can also be misleading, she said. AzMERIT doesn’t measure student growth year to year. It only measures student proficiency for that subject, in that grade, for that particular year.
If a parent follows the AzMERIT scores for a particular group of Casa Grande Elementary students from one year to the next, the growth in proficiency is more noticeable, Gonzales said.
She pointed to this year’s fifth graders, who were fourth graders last year.
In 2018, 29% of Casa Grande Elementary School District fourth graders passed math and 31% passed English. This year, 33% of Casa Grande Elementary fifth graders passed math and 36% passed English.
Other student cohorts in the district show signs of improvement as the move from one grade level to the next, such as last year’s third graders increasing from 29% passing English to 37% passing English as this year’s fourth graders.
A similar thread winds through the AzMERIT results for the high school district, according to Melani Edwards, the director of curriculum, instruction and assessment. Following a group of students as they move from their freshman year to their senior year shows a gradual improvement in scores. For example, in 2018, 26% of students passed Algebra I their freshman year and 30% passed Algebra II their sophomore year.
“Although our students are not proficient on the state exams, we get them closer to the state average the longer we have them in our math classes,” she said.
However, many of the elementary and high school student cohorts show drops in the number of students passing. For example, the percentage of last year’s third graders passing math (30%) dropped as they moved into fourth grade this year (28%). At the high schools, 29% of freshman passed English in 2018 but 27% passed sophomore English this year.
Gonzales and Edwards acknowledged the declines between the other grade levels.
“Our teachers spend a lot of time remediating and reteaching basic mathematical concepts in our Algebra I classes, and reteaching and reinforcing Algebra I concepts in geometry,” Edwards stated in an email. “We are not a (kindergarten through 12th grade) unified district, which makes it difficult to vertically align the curriculum.”
However, both districts have put in place a number of changes to help improve scores and make sure that students are learning the skills they need.
Casa Grande Elementary School District has shuffled some staff and administrators around, opened a new middle school, made repairs to older schools, supported the professional development of the district’s teachers and made changes in the district’s curriculum, Gonzales said.
One particular change Gonzales highlighted was a new math curriculum that was designed by a group of the district’s teachers who volunteered for the project about five years ago. Those same teachers have volunteered to help other teachers in the district learn how to incorporate the new curriculum in their classrooms.
The new curriculum replaced an older, outdated curriculum the district was using, said Andrea Baker, the district’s director of teaching and learning. The new math program focuses on figuring out ways to incorporate math in every subject the students take. It also strives to teach students to understand the reasoning behind the math they are learning instead of just memorizing mathematical functions like multiplication tables. Math is also incorporated in every subject from science to social studies.
The Casa Grande Elementary School District has started to implement a literacy curriculum that has a similar way of touching all of the subjects a student might encounter, Baker said. It also teaches students how different people in different careers use reading, writing and math in their everyday work.
The goal is to not only move students toward greater proficiency in both math and English but teach them the skills they will need to succeed in their future careers and life, she said.
The Casa Grande Union High School District has implemented a similar program where teachers meet in weekly professional learning communities to review student test results and adjust the curriculum to meet the students’ learning needs. Each high school also continues to offer tutoring and other intervention programs for students who may be struggling, Edwards said.
The high school district has also brought in Math Solutions, a program that coaches teachers in the best ways to teach math to students, Edwards said. The program helps teachers understand the math they are teaching and learn how to engage students in the subject.
The high school district’s math teachers are also working directly with the elementary school district’s eight grade teachers to make the transition to high school algebra and geometry easier for students and make sure that students are learning the concepts they need to make the move to high school math, Edwards said.
The CGUHS District is also bringing in a new literacy curriculum, HMH Into Literature series, starting in January 2020. The series incorporates student reading and writing together with technology that allows teachers to track student progress. The program also provides teachers with tips on how to work with students who may be excelling or struggling with reading and writing.
Gonzales said the elementary school district is continuing to encourage teachers to expand their own education by supporting teacher requests to attend training programs, seminars and earn certification in programs such as Google Suites.
Google Suites, or G Suites, is similar to Microsoft Office. It includes a word processing program, email program, spreadsheet program, calendar and slide presentation program as well as cloud storage for projects and photos. A number of schools and businesses have started using G Suites.
Casa Grande Elementary School District is just starting to see the results of the changes that have been made in the last couple of years, Gonzales said. And she expects to see greater improvements in the years to come.