PHOENIX — The top performing school district in the state got there by borrowing liberally from the ideas and concepts of its neighbor.
David Woodall, superintendent of the Benson Unified School District, said his schools share more than a common boundary with Vail Unified School District. It has been one of the top-rated districts in the state for years.
“They've opened their doors, all their practices, curriculum and curriculum guides they've shared with us,” Woodall said at a Thursday press conference here to announce the latest letter grades for school districts around the state. “This kept us from reinventing the wheel, allowed us to work on refining practices for a smaller school district rather than creating those.”
In taking the top honors, Benson managed to edge out Vail for the No. 2 slot.
Statewide, the number of schools managing to get an A rating increased from fewer than 400 to more than 450. Scores are based largely on results of the AIMS tests, short for Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards, not only in absolute terms but also in year-over-year improvement.
On that front, Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal said there has been a slow but steady increase in the number of high school sophomores who passed the math, reading and writing parts of the test.
Still, 38 percent those sophomores failed at least one part of the test. That is important because Arizona law requires a passing grade on all three sections to get a diploma.
Students will have several more opportunities to pass before their graduation date.
Huppenthal also reported a steady increase in the number of students in lower grades passing math and reading tests. But there was no improvement at all in performance in the writing test.
One group under particular scrutiny is third graders. This year, for the first time, they cannot advance on to fourth grade unless they can show they are reading at grade level.
Two years ago, that number was 4,356. While it has declined this year to 3,059, that still represents about 3.6 percent of third graders in the state.
On school grading, Huppenthal said there was little change in the number of schools which got a B, with a slight reduction in C-rated schools and a significant drop in those who got a D.
There also were 21 schools rated F based on several years of underperformance. But Huppenthal said they have an opportunity to appeal that rating.
Huppenthal also pointed out that 16 percent of schools in the state actually dropped in their letter grade.
“So that if you're not staying on your toes, you're not keeping a constant effort, that you have significant additional challenges that you face, your letter grade can be significantly at risk,” he said.
Conversely, Huppenthal said 21 percent of Arizona's more than 2,000 schools actually managed to increase their grades. And he said the experience with the Benson schools proves that is possible, even in a district which lacks the affluence of some others.
Huppenthal, like Woodall, said some of the reason for that is the inter-district cooperation with Vail, on Tucson's southeast side. That, he said, includes the decision by Vail Superintendent Calvin Baker to start a network called Beyond Textbooks to revamp how students are taught.
“Across that network they make lesson plans available, the curriculum is available and a variety of consulting services actually go out from Vail,” Huppenthal said. He called the relationship between Benson and Vail “a combination of cooperation and competition.”
Woodall said it took four years to get his district to the top of the chart.
“There was no overnight fix, no magic pill, no single program that led to these results,” Woodall said.
Next year's ratings are going to be watched particularly closely because the whole system is undergoing a revolution of sorts. Most significantly, the AIMS tests — the basis for the letter-grading system — are going away, to be replaced with some new nationally norm-referenced tests.
That is part of the switch to the Common Core curriculum developed by officials and educators across the country. It lays out particular skills students are supposed to acquire at set points during their education.
The idea is to assess students through tests, administered online, that are aligned with the new curriculum. And Huppenthal said these “college and career ready standards” will be “a little bit higher” than those demanded by AIMS.
Most immediately, Huppenthal predicted that 62 percent passing rate now for sophomores on AIMS “is going to fall significantly.” What it also will mean, he said, is having to re-do the letter-grading system entirely.
And that, he said, will lead to fewer schools getting an A rating.