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by Tim Grivois-Shah, Ed.D., Director of Professional Learning and Community Engagement

Imagine that instead of reading and math, the AzMERIT assessment was a pull-up contest. Researchers, legislators, and school leaders worked together and decided that to be college and career ready, it was essential that every student, no exceptions, be able to do 5 pull-ups with perfect form by the time they graduated from high school. The results of the assessment, reported in the table below, are meant to show how each school performed when compared to the state-wide 5 pull-up standard.

Data Table of Pretend AzMERIT Pull-Up Assessment Results

Which school is the most successful at equipping students to complete five pull-ups with perfect form? It depends on what matters most.

The most commonly reported and discussed result from the AzMERIT is typically the percent passing rate. Newspapers generally report test results based on what percent of students passed the test, and in Arizona, a school’s letter grade depends in large part on how many students score high enough to pass. 

Everyone wants Arizona’s children to pass state assessments. However, evaluating schools based on percent passing rates makes the hard work and achievement of our most vulnerable learners completely invisible. Even worse, making decisions based on percent passing scores prevents legislators, policymakers, and educators from understanding what resources and instructional strategies are most effective at increasing achievement at all levels.

Take a look at School A and School B for example. While both schools have only a 40% pass rate on the Pretend AzMERIT Pull-Up Assessment, the actual level of achievement at both schools is different. At School A, students who passed performed well above the required five pull-ups, and nearly everyone at School A who didn’t pass were already half way to reaching the goal. At School B, the students passed with the lowest possible score, and students who didn’t pass were far from passing. Knowing the actual number of pull-ups performed reveals important differences in student achievement.

Another way think about percent passing scores versus actual scores is to look at how School C and School D performed on the Pretend AzMERIT Pull-Up Assessment. At School C, every single child passed, and at School D, every single child failed. Students at School C are celebrated, while at School D, they are invisible. Yet, the actual performance on the assessment in terms of what students could actually do was virtually identical. If leaders look only at percent passing rates, they might understandably (and mistakenly) think that School A, B, and D should completely redesign their approaches to pull-up practice and do whatever made School C so successful.

CITY students build their learning through PBL

Behind every data point, from AzMERIT or any other assessment, beats the heart of an actual child learning in our classrooms. When percent passing scores on AzMERIT are emphasized the most, the growth, hard work, and achievement of large numbers of Arizona students becomes invisible. By looking instead to what students were actually able to achieve (e.g. our students’ scaled score), regardless of their passing score, school leaders can access better data for better decisions.