Three Arizona school districts receive top marks on student improvement

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A new study ranking school districts based on student improvement placed three Arizona district in the top 20 nationwide.

Chandler Unified School District, Washington Elementary School District and Peoria Unified School District were among those reported to have the highest growth rates in students from third to eighth grade. The study was conducted by the Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis and included data from roughly 300 million elementary-school test scores from more than 11,000 school districts.

Ted Simons: Interesting times. Good to have you here. Thanks for joining us. Three Arizona school districts made the top 20 on a national list that looked at how well students improve between the 3rd and 8th grades. Here now is Matt Strom, Assistant Superintendent of the Chandler Unified School District, which came in 2nd for student performance growth, and Lori Mora, assistant superintendent from the Washington Elementary School District, which also finished in the top 20. Congratulations to both of you. That has to be encouraging. We are looking at what exactly does this study look at and how come you did so well?

Matt Strom: The study looked at great 3-6 performance. In Chandler Unified we had 8 years of growth in five years time hoping closing to achievement gap. We really believe the biggest factors we are in control is quality instructional leadership and staff and making sure they are the highest caliber in Arizona.

Ted Simons: Is that more of an emphasis than it was? Why is it looking so good now?

Matt Strom: We think it has always looked good. We have always managed the assets so we can be the most competitive and attract the most qualified.

Ted Simons: 5.5 grade growth in Washington in five years. What is that telling you?

Lori Mora: It is telling us we are doing the right thing. We have children coming with unique challenges in your district. Poverty, homelessness, refuges in the district. We have students in crisis. One thing we do very well in Washington is we care about the whole child. Academic performance and growth is absolutely why we are there. We are embracing really looking at all those things that children bring to us and not looking at them as barriers and ways we can just work that much harder at making improvements for the students.

Ted Simons: What does grade level mean as far as a metric?

Lori Mora: In look at the growth of students is one piece of the study that was exciting for us because traditionally our system of proficiency looks at a year's worth of growth. However, that growth can be rather minimal when we look at what it is saying. What grade level growth is is looking at the progress students make from every year that fits within the rage we would like to see a typical student grow. With other challenges that can be significant to get a year's worth of growth or to see that growth. It is important to look at the progress throughout all the grade levels.

Ted Simons: can we get an indication of proficiency? Any indications?

Matt Strom: Certainly. We know without growth you will never grow a minimally or partially proficient kid. We have set forth plans from our visionary governing board and ensured proficiency is valued. What we like to say in our district is we want to grow and grow kids but eventually we want to grow them so much they are tall enough to get on the ride at Disneyland.

Ted Simons: That is a good line there. As far as the study is concerned, does it mean you look at student achievement, student progress, in a different way?

Matt Strom: You certainly should look at it in two ways. In terms of proficiency and growth. What we know is we think growth measures our effectiveness as a system a little better than proficiency and I think Washington Elementary would agree with that.

Ted Simons: Do you agree with that?

Lori Mora: We do. We have students that will have to run further and harder to get to the proficiency label. In the past it was challenge to show any improvement in our students because unless they crossed the finish line at the same rate, there was that belief they were not being as proficient. Now we can demonstrate we are making growth. Some of our students are running much more of an uphill battle than other students but we can demonstrate we are making differences there.

Ted Simons: Are you concerned about initial gaps in third grade when this kind of study gets started?

Lori Mora: The challenging part is making sure we put the interventions in place earlier enough. We are focused on the K-2, K-3 literacy rate.

Ted Simons: Social economics. How much does they pay into a study?

Matt Strom: Less on the growth side than the proficiency. When you look at kids and look at spring to spring growth, socio economics will factor less whether it is value added measurements or any growth measurement we have. It is less on growth than proficiency.

Ted Simons: Socio economics can be a huge factor. In this study, schools in Chicago did very well as far as that growth is concerned. What do you do after 8th grade? It may not be your primary concern but that is a concern.

Lori Mora: It absolutely is. The school district we have is we are an elementary school district. By 8th grade we need to have them prepared to move on to the high school level and look at what they are doing and looking at workplace skills and things they have to have in order to be successful as they move through whatever life brings them after they get out of school.

Ted Simons: You mention workplace skills. I know back in the day, a long time ago when I was in school it seemed like you learn to read, write, and think and you take it from there. Is it more focused these days?

Lori Mora: Some places it is. When we are looking at standards we are addressing is what are the basic skills we need to have out in the workforce? When we look at reading and math what are the pieces in order for our students to walk out and be successful adults that they have to have.

Ted: Make sense?

Matt Strom: Our choice is to be a premier district of choice. We have engineering programming, STEM program, Spanish and Mandarin immersion. We are meeting them at their learning passion and teaching them to learn through the passion so they can be successful in a variety of areas.

Ted Simons: Last question. Number two in the country. Were you a little surprised?

Matt Strom: We want to be number one in the country. We were pleasantly surprised but we would like to get ahead of Chicago.

Ted Simons: and how about you? Had to be nice to see?

Lori Mora: It was. We have hard working teachers and support staff and it gave us hope we are on the right track.

Ted Simons: congratulations to both of you. Celebrate the numbers. They look good. Friday on Arizona Horizon it's the journalists' roundtable. An update on candidates looking to replace former representative Trent Franks and a group of prominent business leaders again calls for an increase in education funding. Those stories and more, Friday, on the journalists' roundtable. That is it for now. I am Ted Simons. Thank you so much for joining us. You have a great evening.

Video: Arizona "Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the Friends of Arizona PBS, members of your PBS station. Thank you!

Matt Strom: Assistant Superintendent, Chandler Unified School District
Lori Mora: Assistant Superintendent, Washington Elementary School District

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