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IMG_0423On Monday, November 30 the results of the AzMERIT test that students took last spring will be made public. They were delivered to the doorstep of every public school in Arizona last month with ‘embargo’ instructions, to not discuss school-wide results with the public, even one’s own school board, and to share only individual student scores with families and teachers as needed. The Arizona Department of Education wanted to be the one to share the big news.

Now they get their chance. But we already know the news is bad based on the early estimates released in August. This week we’ll find out just how bad.

Before we start pointing fingers and wringing hands, let’s put the test into perspective.

The AzMERIT tells one part of a much larger story on how a child – or a school – is progressing and achieving. The assessment has an important but limited scope, focusing on skills in language arts and math only. It provides points of information in what should be a much larger set of data.

Let’s also keep in mind that the test is brand new. Teachers and administrators had been transitioning to Common Core curriculum standards in recent years and most assumed along the way that Arizona would select the PARCC assessment, field tested in 2013-2014 in fourteen states and the District of Columbia. Then state legislators made an eleventh hour decision last November to go with the AzMERIT test instead. This resulted in hasty implementation. Schools and districts were left scrambling to get details about the structure of the new test, train teachers, acquire the necessary technology, get access to sample questions, communicate with parents, and let’s not forget, prepare the kids.

So when the AzMERIT school results are released and make dire headlines, let’s keep a level head.

Many key indicators of a healthy and rigorous learning environment are rarely quantified or published. But parents know when they are happening when they ask the right questions: Is my child coming home curious about the world around them? Are the teachers encouraging inquiry and exploration? Does my child talk about some of the adults at school in ways that let me know there is personal connection, respect, and perhaps even mentorship? Are there opportunities to learn outside the classroom, go on field trips, perform for public audiences, engage with the bigger world beyond the campus? Are we getting the support we need to navigate the college application process? Is my child happy at school – and why?

While a statewide test has some merit, it needs to be part of a comprehensive system of assessment for schools that takes into account a broad array of skills and aptitudes. And in order to provide accurate data schools need time and resources to prepare. The fact is, the selection process for the AzMERIT was political and unpredictable from the start. In this pilot year, let’s remember that the test results are, in part, a reflection of the antics of the Arizona legislature. The community should not panic. Schools should not get punished. Parents should not berate their principals. The AzMERIT results will provide us with a baseline, but they are not the be all and end all of how a school or a district is faring in its daily efforts to engage, support, and challenge all of its students.

Meanwhile, we should all keep a watchful eye on what is happening in Washington, DC. The bipartisan congressional committee charged with creating revised legislation for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is hard at work and making progress. The new act seems to provide a ray of hope, with a renewed spotlight on student learning defined and assessed more comprehensively and decreased wattage on state tests like the AzMERIT.

And let’s keep asking hard questions of ourselves and our schools, as well as our legislators and our media, about what learning looks like, how best to track it, and what is best for kids.