Arizona public schools will get new letter-grade ratings for the first time in three years this fall, and the state will calculate them in ways both different and similar.

The majority of Arizona’s students are still underperforming on the AzMERIT standardized test, but unofficial statewide results obtained by The Arizona Republic show continual, gradual improvement since 2015, when students first took the exam.

Almost every grade level improved on the math and reading portions of AzMERIT during the 2016-17 school year by a handful of percentage points. It’s similar to the growth many educators and advocates mostly cheered when last year’s scores were released.

However, a large percentage continue to test in the exam’s lowest performance level of “minimally proficient,” a designation for students who are furthest away from mastering the state’s math and reading standards.

The latest results will be the principal metric that the state will use to calculate the much-anticipated new school letter grades — ratings given to public schools on an A-F scale. The letter grades and official AzMERIT scores will be announced in September.

This was the third time students took AzMERIT. But the scores from the last two years have had no accountability impact because the state held off on issuing letter grades as it transitioned to the new test. AzMERIT is considered to be much more rigorous than AIMS, the test it replaced.

AzMERIT scores are divided into four performance levels: “minimally proficient,” partially proficient,” “proficient” and “highly proficient.” A student earns a passing score if they test proficient or above. The test is administered in grades 3-11 and consists of a math and reading portion.

Elementary-school students continue to be the top performers on AzMERIT and are the closest to cracking a 50-percent statewide passing rate. Arizona fourth-grade students who took the reading portion had the highest passing rate: 48 percent.

High-school students, meanwhile, are testing at some of the lowest rates of proficiency. Three-fourths of 11th-graders failed the test’s reading portion, according to unofficial statewide results.

This year’s unofficial statewide results include:

  • Forty-three percent of the state’s third-graders passed AzMERIT’s reading portion, an improvement of 3 percent compared to inaugural 2015 scores. Reading scores are emphasized in Arizona because they decide whether a student gets promoted to fourth grade. Forty-five percent of the 88,000 kids who took this year’s test scored “minimally proficient.”
  • Math scores improved from last year at every test level except geometry, where the passing rate stayed the same at 34 percent. All but two grade levels — 11th and fifth grades — improved in reading.
  • While students are generally performing better in math, reading scores have seen the largest improvements. Passing rates in the fifth (44 percent), seventh (44 percent) and ninth grades (36 percent) have all improved by 10 or more percentage points since 2015.

Tim Carter, president of the Arizona State Board of Education, said in an email Tuesday afternoon he had not seen the results yet. He added the board is scheduled to review the results at its Sept. 25 meeting, a week after the scores and letter grades are publicly released.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas, who was traveling out of the state Tuesday, said in a written statement that the Arizona Department of Education is still finalizing 2016-17 AzMERIT results.

“It would not be prudent for ADE to offer analysis or draw any conclusions from incomplete data, especially since the data will play an integral role in the Every Student Succeeds Act State Plan (ESSA) and the state’s A-F Accountability Plan,” Douglas said in the statement.

“We look forward to releasing the data, as we have always planned to, on September 18, 2017.”

Cut scores for letter grades still to be determined

The state will not decide the cut scores for each letter-grade rating until August. The Board of Education set a new, more complicated, grading rubric this year that includes factors other than test scores.

AzMERIT scores will account for 80 percent of the grade for elementary schools, and half of the grade will be tied to improvement rates.

The Republic reported last year that schools in Maricopa County and metro Tucson improved and regressed by as many as 50 percentage points in specific areas of the test.

More granular data published last year also showed wide gaps in student performance. For example, white students were almost twice as likely to pass AzMERIT than Latino and black students.

High-school students remain worst performers

Only 25 percent of students passed the 11th-grade reading portion of AzMERIT — the lowest passing rate for a grade level in the test’s three-year history.

That passing rate underscores one of educators’ biggest concerns about the exam.

Unlike the AIMS test that preceded it, students are not required to pass AzMERIT to graduate. The results have no bearing on a student’s college prospects, like the SAT and Advanced Placement tests. It does not appear the state plans to make the exam “high-stakes.”

Beyond schools’ efforts to motivate students to take the test seriously — such as tying scores to off-campus lunch privileges — there is little incentive for older students to perform well. Some students on social media have expressed indifference about the test.

But AzMERIT scores will account for 50 percent of a high school’s letter grade under the new rubric.

2016-17 AzMERIT statewide passing rates:

English language arts

  • Grade 3: 43 percent (+3 percentage-point gain since 2015)
  • Grade 4: 48 percent (+6 percent)
  • Grade 5: 44 percent (+12 percent)
  • Grade 6: 41 percent (+5 percent)
  • Grade 7: 44 percent (+11 percent)
  • Grade 8: 34 percent (-1 percent)
  • Grade 9: 36 percent (+10 percent)
  • Grade 10: 31 percent (-1 percent)
  • Grade 11: 25 percent (-5 percent)


  • Grade 3: 47 percent (+5 percent)
  • Grade 4: 47 percent (+5 percent)
  • Grade 5: 47 percent (+7 percent)
  • Grade 6: 41 percent (+8 percent)
  • Grade 7: 34 percent (+3 percent)
  • Grade 8: 28 percent (-6 percent)
  • Algebra I: 39 percent (+7 percent)
  • Geometry: 34 percent (+3 percent)
  • Algebra II: 34 percent (+4 percent)


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