Arizona Schools Report Card

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Letter grades have been issued for Arizona public schools by the Arizona Department of Education. State Superintendent John Huppenthal will talk about the grades, which have shown some improvement.

Ted Simons: Good evening, and welcome to "Arizona Horizon," I'm Ted Simons. The latest letter grades for Arizona Public Schools are out, the assessments issued by the State's Department of Education. Joining us now is Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction, John Huppenthal. Good to see you again.

John Huppenthal: Good to be here.

Ted Simons: The grades are out, slight improvement?

John Huppenthal: The math scores are up a percentage point, reading scores up a percentage point. We were elated, for the first time we are a minority-majority school system. That's increasing the demographic challenge to our school system. We have met that demographic challenge and put some points on the board, too.

Ted Simons: 21% of schools increased, 16% decreased. Obviously there's success in there, but why not more improvement?

John Huppenthal: Well, we have a number of challenges. I mentioned the demographic challenge they have overcome and made some progress. I think we're elated with that. We have financial stress that they overcame, the transition to new higher standards, and new teacher evaluations and new principal evaluations. There were a number of shocks to the system. They digested it all and put some points up, I'm elated.

Ted Simons: Give us some insight on what's being looked at and how it's being assessed.

John Huppenthal: We had less than 20% of our schools being A schools when we started. Now that's moved up to 28%. People perhaps rightfully see a little grade inflation. The thing we are going to do when we move to the new standards is to take new look at this and see if there's a clear dividing line. We want an environment where the typical student in our system for 13 years, if they are in an A school, they go out to college and career ready. They need to look at what they call the psychometrics, the measurements of the progress, and make sure the student comes out after 13 years, college and career ready.

Ted Simons: I want to talk about the new standards in a second. As far as the criteria is concerned, passing AIMS? That is a concern?

John Huppenthal: There's two measures, the academic results and academic gains. The results are what percentage of the students pass the AIMS. And the academic gains is what's the percentile rank of the gains of the students in your school. With a particular emphasis on the --

Ted Simons: 1% uptake, that sounds kind of modest here.

John Huppenthal: It is pretty modest. But when you think of the demographic challenges, more of the students from low-income minority backgrounds, and all of the shocks to the system right now, I was pretty happy. I was actually anticipating we might take a dip. When we move up under those challenges and stresses, I'm happy.

Ted Simons: 56% passed the writing section, again, those are not high.

John Huppenthal: Those are some separate issues there, and one of the things we very much have to consider is the point system by which we do our letter grades in our school system. We are looking at all the other states and think tanks and what they are saying. I think we need to consider moving writing in and making it part of the letter grading, and we have to move the science in and make it part of the letter grading. Finally there need to be some other aspects with quality in there, quality as perceived by parents and students, too.

Ted Simons: Common core, the new requirements coming into the schools, we've talked about it a lot on the program, but a lot of folks are just now figuring out things are changing come this next school year.

John Huppenthal: It's a logical time to do it. Again, these aren't decisions I make by myself. We have to make sure these are fully invested scientifically, so we get a consensus in the school community. We have an advisory community that are technical experts, so there's a process. I think as I look at the research, we need to head down that road.

Ted Simons: Will we be heading down that road when common core takes over, or will there be a bump in the road?

John Huppenthal: Common core is a much higher standard than the AIMS standard. We will have a lower percentage of students passing the test from the get-go. We will have to rework the letter grading system.

Ted Simons: There will be changes in terms of the assessment?

John Huppenthal: Absolutely. We will roll out an essentially brand-new test. It's going to do some very important things. It'll more accurately measure academic achievement at the upper end of the scale. We haven't done that very accurately. I think it's a huge weakness of the AIMS portfolio. That's a major fault of AIMS.

Ted Simons: You mentioned the demographic challenges out there. What are the impacts you think of budget cuts? You've been quoted as saying that perhaps the legislature has done too much in terms of cutting the education budget here in Arizona. Talk to me about that.

John Huppenthal: Part of this, I went into the press conference wanting to lay out my results, and Howie Fischer did what he does and changed the subject. I've always felt the education community should get its prior year of funding plus almost enough to cover inflation. So not enough to completely cover it because they should contribute to the productivity of society, too. We haven't come close to doing that. As a result, there's a lot of stress on the system. Money may not be correlated with outcomes, but the lack of money induces stress and distracts the system from the primary mission, budget cuts.

Ted Simons: You were at the legislature, now in this position. Are you seeing things a little differently?

John Huppenthal: I am to a certain extent. I continue to read a lot of research and I see New York City, they almost doubled their budget from $12 to $21 billion, not a lot to show for it, if anything. States like Wyoming, up to $16,000 for students, not a lot to show for it. I know the distraction caused by budget cuts, and it distracts my leaders from their primary mission, which is supporting students and leading in the classroom.

Ted Simons: Sounded like you gave a shot when you said that corporate gifts were appropriate when --

John Huppenthal: I'm a firm believer we need to keep our tax rates as low as possible. Where I get extreme concern is when they go out and try to buy economic growth. I read a lot of research. When I was in the legislature I read a lot of research on economic development. There is a powerful case to be made that your students benefit from lower tax rates and good economic portfolio. Over the last 20 years Arizona ranks fifth in the nation at economic growth and job growth. But a part of that portfolio was never buying your economic growth. When you're cutting education and also they don't realize that we're endangering the future of school choice. School choice depends on a healthy general fund. If that general fund is in critical condition it could shut down our entire school choice market. Our school choice enterprise is a huge economic generator for Arizona.

Ted Simons: The Speaker of the House heard your quotes and commented, he basically said you've never been down there lobbying for classroom funding. Is he correct?

John Huppenthal: Classroom funding, the speaker of the House, I have no problems with the speaker of the House. I applaud him completely. He was responsible for leading us through a very tough time, made tough decisions, no, problem with that at all. This was started a little bit by Howard Fischer.

Ted Simons: Have you been down there lobbying for funding?

John Huppenthal: Not this year. I was happy with that. What I'm concerned about now is where, with the economy turning up a little bit, I'm worried about them going out on the corporate giveaways instead of sticking to the priorities, which should be education. They do a number of corruptions. They corrupt the lobbying process, corrupt the economic development process, you have the economists coming up with the fake studies about the impact of these things. I feel strongly about -- and this isn't railing against tax cuts. Tax cuts strengthen the economy and give jobs to students leaving high school and college. That's healthy for students.

Ted Simons: But it is suggesting that you go down there or you might be going down there in the next session perhaps, and protecting Arizona education funding.

John Huppenthal: Well, I felt more strongly about this, and what they do down there from the standpoint of education and the future of our children, the future of our state. I feel like I don't have -- I don't have to be a part of that. In some ways it's harder to speak when you're a part of the system than when you're outside of it. When I see a lot of this giveaway behavior down there, I will speak about it more loudly. I think it puts at risk the future of our state and its prospects, too.

Ted Simons: Speaker thanks. With those ideas maybe you should run for the legislature again.

John Huppenthal: Sometimes it's easier to speak when you're outside the legislature. Let me tell you, I do nothing but laud the leadership of the speaker. Est returns us to the top of the nation. I have no problem with the speaker and his actions.

Ted Simons: Good to see you again, thanks for joining us.

John Huppenthal: Thank you.

John Huppenthal:Superintendent, Arizona;

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