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Test scores reflect education inequality in poor areas

Students leave Tucson High as school gets out on Friday, Sept. 29. High schools did worse on the AzMERIT than primary schools. Photo taken by CJ D’Innocente.

State test scores highlight educational inequality in rural areas with high percentages of poor students.

On the 2016-17 AzMERIT test, 39 percent of Arizona students passed the English section of the test. Across the state, students with an economic disadvantage (qualifying for free or reduced lunch) tested nearly 10 percent lower on the AzMERIT test, passing at 28 percent. Homeless students tested almost 20 percent lower than the average; only two out of every 10 homeless students passed the test.

Percentage of economically disadvantaged students by County. Data provided by Arizona Board of Education

FY16-17 AzMERIT scores by county. Data provided by Arizona Board of Education.

As a result, counties with higher percentages of poor students came in further below the statewide average on the test. For example, in La Paz County, where 80 percent of the tested students qualified as disadvantaged, only 22 percent of students passed the exam.

Vincent Roscigno, a professor of sociology at Ohio State University who has studied education inequality at the national level, identified some key factors behind lower test scores in rural counties.

“If you look at the best predictors of standardized test scores, whether they’re state level standardized tests or the ACT or SAT, it’s parent family income and parent education,” Roscigno said in a phone interview.

Income inequality in rural areas also affects school funding: rural counties have smaller tax bases. “District spending is based on local property values, so there’s less money to go around,” Roscigno said. “A lot of rural areas, because of their lower tax bases, have a lot less money to spend per pupil.”

According to Roscigno, these inequalities are expressed in curriculum and resources available to students.

“We know that rural poor areas and schools in those areas are less likely to offer things such as Advanced Placement (AP) classes, things that could give students a leg up when applying for college,” he said.

“Suburban well-to-do areas are flush with AP classes, language classes, math, science and all of that, so those differences in per pupil expenditures end up playing out in important school resource ways,” he added.

Following the implementation of the AzMERIT test in 2015, the Arizona Board of Education also implemented the A-F Accountability Plan, which assigns letter grades to the schools based on multiple factors. The board released the accountability grades on Oct. 9. Evaluation criteria differ between types of schools, but one of the largest factors is performance on the AzMERIT test.

For elementary schools, 30 percent of the grade is determined from AzMERIT scores, with another 50 percent coming from AzMERIT improvement. High schools are less affected by test scores; 30 percent of the grade is determined by scores and only 20 percent coming from AzMERIT improvement.

Schools in rural counties did noticeably worse than schools in urban counties and as a result, received lower accountability grades. For example, no school in La Paz county received an A.

In Gila County, where 60 percent of students qualify as disadvantaged, only two schools out of the 23 in the district received A grades.

In contrast, more than 180 schools in Maricopa County got an A. According to Roscigno, the negative stigma surrounding poor schools is also detrimental to education.

“These are places that are often stigmatized in various ways because of their class compositions or the minority compositions they have; they’re kind of stigmatized as ‘bad school districts,’” Roscigno said.

“If you’re a teacher coming out of college and you want a job, you don’t want to go to a place you’ve heard bad things about, and where you’ll get paid less. They have a really hard time recruiting and maintaining good teachers when there’s inequality across districts, and this negative portrayal of populations when they are poor.”

Ron Aguallo, superintendent for Douglas Unified School District in Cochise County, explained how stigma and inequalities in faculty contribute to lower scores for rural counties.

“Number one, it’s hard to attract teachers. It could be a large class size, but if we can’t attract new teachers, that’s going to affect education,” Aguallo said.

“To improve teacher development, you have professional development. To bring professional development out to a rural area is much more expensive than a metro area. Or vice versa, sending rural teachers to metro areas. Say we have to send our teachers to Phoenix for training, that’s also expensive.”

According to Tim Carter, vice president of the Board of Education, there are expectations that AzMERIT scores will improve as schools acclimate to the new system.

“That’s the hope and understanding, and part of why its weighted this way is so they can grow,” Carter said. “As they grow, they become proficient. That is the expectation.”

The A-F Accountability grades are not accompanied by steep repercussions. However, they are intended to help the schools reflect and improve, Carter said. “If the grade is lower or higher than expected, then the schools would explain the rationale to parents, students; all the stakeholders.”

Aguallo also anticipated that AzMERIT scores would improve as schools become more familiar with the test.

“I think it’s a combination of both the kids getting more used to the test and the teachers adjusting to and getting more comfortable with the standards,” he said. “They can get a little more in depth with their teaching.”

There is an appeal process available for schools that receive low accountability grades. However, there are substantial limitations to what grounds will be considered for re-evaluation.

Only appeals based on environmental issues, adverse testing conditions, school or community emergency, school tragedy, or other substantive events will be considered, according to the Arizona Board of Education.

This prevents schools from appealing the letter grade based on factors such as demographics or funding. Schools with a high percentage of economically disadvantaged students face being branded with low grades until next year’s evaluation of AzMERIT scores.

“Poorer families are becoming poorer, and there are more of them, and they’re becoming isolated in poor pockets of the country, especially in rural areas,” Roscigno said.

“We like to believe we live in a land of equal educational opportunity, especially in public schooling, but the fact of the matter is, localities differ in terms of their wealth and the amount of money they can spend per pupil,” he said.

CJ D’Innocente is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at christopherd@email.arizona.edu.

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