AzMERIT: Expect Increased Proficiency Inequality

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The first shoe has dropped. The unofficial AzMERIT scores for the state have been released, and, as most people expected, fewer students made it above the cut score—were declared Proficient—than with the earlier AIMS test. We were told AzMERIT was going to be a tougher test, so it makes sense that the proficiency rate would go down. But there's another shoe yet to drop when the individual district and school scores are released. Here's what you should expect: the percent of students declared Proficient will fall in all schools and districts, but it will fall less in high performing schools than in low performing schools. That means the gap between high achieving and low achieving schools and districts will appear to increase, but the change will have more to do with the way the test is scored than with any change in student achievement.

New York City was the first in the nation to give its students a test aligned with the Common Core. Passing rates dropped all over the city, but the drop was greatest among students who scored low on the previous test. That  didn't mean the achievement gap increased. The raised cut score made the increased gap in passage rates a virtual certainty.

If the proficiency gap increases in Arizona as I expect it will, the new AzMERIT test itself won't be the main reason, and it certainly won't mean the differences in students' achievement levels have grown. It will be due to the raised expectations about what it means to be proficient. When you raise the cut score, raise the dividing line between Proficient and Partially Proficient, the apparent achievement gap is going to increase even if students' academic abilities remain constant. That has to do with the nature of tests and cut scores. More or less the same thing would have happened if we kept AIMS and set a new, higher bar on the old test.

If I'm wrong, if the percentage of students declared Proficient drops more-or-less evenly school to school and district to district or the differences don't have any relation to whether the schools are high or low achieving, then I'm wrong. But if I'm right, anyone who uses the new scores to slam "failing" students and schools by saying things have gotten worse since last year, that the test's increased proficiency gap means that low achieving students and schools are achieving at a lower level than they did before, is wrong.

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