State education officials looking for more-precise way to measure progress
by Pat Kossan | The Arizona Republic
Dec. 13, 2009
The way Arizona decides if a school is performing or failing is likely to change dramatically by 2011.
The new method would be more precise than any used previously and measure how successfully a school pushes its students - average or gifted, rich or poor - to learn more from year to year, state officials said.
It could mean additions and deletions on the list of best-performing schools in Arizona and would give parents better information about the quality of teaching at a school. It also could be used to determine which teachers a school retains and how much a teacher is paid.
"The way that (student academic) growth was measured in 2003 when I took office was sufficiently problematic that it would not be fair to judge teachers on that data," said Tom Horne, Arizona superintendent of public instruction. "Now the science and technology has developed to a point where I think you can do that fairly."
The State Board of Education will have the final say on when and how the state puts the new method to use. That vote is expected in the spring.
Students' progress impacts school labels
In 2002, the state began publicly labeling schools based on their student performance. As its chief measurement, the state uses year-to-year gains in the overall percentage of students at a school passing the AIMS exam.
If approved, beginning in 2011, measuring the success of an overall school's population would be replaced by measuring the year-to-year improvement of each of its student's AIMS scores, whether or not it's a passing score.
Individual student growth would become 50 percent of the way a school earns one of the state's six labels: excelling, highly performing, performing plus, performing, underperforming or failing. The state will use both the proposed new measurement and the old measurement to label schools in 2010 so educators and policy makers can see the difference in how their school would be labeled.
The new measurement is most commonly referred to as the "value-added" method and here's how it works:
• A student's AIMS score is measured on a scale of 200 at the bottom for Grade 3 and 900 at the top for the high-school exam.
• The state already has the ability to determine improvement in each student's AIMS scale score over previous years' scores. The new measurement allows the state to determine if a student's year-to-year progress matches progress made by other Arizona students who had similar scores last year and the year before.
• On a micro level, this new method can help teachers and parents determine if a student's learning is keeping pace or outpacing their true academic peers, whether the student is scoring in the 300s or in the 700s. On a macro level, it can determine if students in a classroom, a school or a district are outpacing similar students, keeping pace with them or falling behind.
New school search engine for parents of students
By 2011, parents would have access to a new search engine that uses the new measurement to compare schools within their district or neighborhood.
Horne said the visual charts that accompany the new method would make it easier for parents to find out what they really want to know: Are the teachers at a school capable of moving all students ahead in their learning and is their particular child moving up?
"It's a major breakthrough for parents to see exactly what is happening with their school and other schools in the neighborhood," Horne said.
Right now, the state is test-driving the new technology. Education officials hope to get individual student achievement graphs in the hands of every teacher, perhaps as soon as the start of school in January, to help them target their teaching to student needs.
"A teacher can also show them to a parent and the parent really understands that the kid has a lot of work to do to pass AIMS, which is very often the case, probably more than people realize," said Rebecca Gau, a researcher with the Arizona Charter School Association who helped to bring the new measurement to the state.
Teacher performance linked to student data
Colorado was the first state to use the newest growth measurement, but it's now being considered in many states, mostly as a way to measure a teacher's performance. The Obama administration is pushing states to find a fair way to link teacher pay to student test scores and there are big grants on the table for states willing to follow its lead.
A school or district, even the state, could use the data as part of each teacher's professional evaluation to help determine retention, training needs and pay, Horne said.
Horne likes the idea of using student growth to gauge teacher performance, and this method is the fairest he has seen.
"The teacher who made a lot of growth with poor kids would still show better than a teacher who made little growth with richer kids," Horne said.
It's a tool that researchers are continuing to refine and is worth exploring as a teacher-performance indicator, said Andrew Morrill, vice president of Arizona Education Association, the state's teachers union. Morrill cautions that teachers cannot be fairly evaluated using only one measurement.
It could be combined with other criteria, such as a teacher's willingness to continue pursuing additional education and to work with other teachers to develop effective lesson plans, he said.
"You still have the question of what and how many data indicators you're going to use in a fairly complex calculation," Morrill said.
The Arizona State Board of Education received an explanation of the new approach Dec. 7. The board is expected to convene a study session on the new method in the spring before it votes on the proposed change.