Epic Fail in Arizona

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Arizona Board of Regents put out a tracking study on the High School Class of 2006.  Arizona Republic reporter Ann Ryman lays out the relevant data in the first couple of paragraphs:

Half of the state’s public high schools saw 5 percent or fewer of their graduates from 2006 earn bachelor’s degrees, a new study finds.

And 62 percent of the college degrees earned by the high-school Class of 2006 went to students from just 40 of the state’s 460 high schools.

The report out today from the Arizona Board of Regents is the first in the state to provide a snapshot of college-completion rates for individual high schools. For six years, the regents tracked 53,392 Arizona students who graduated from high school in the 2005-06 school year, regardless of whether they moved or attended college out of state.

Using data from colleges nationwide, the report found that 57 percent of the Arizona students who graduated from high school in 2005-06 went on to college, but only 19 percent graduated from a four-year institution within six years.

An additional 6 percent graduated from a two-year college or trade school.

So after six-years we are looking at 25% getting some sort of credential. Half of Arizona high-schools get 5% or fewer of their graduates to earn a BA.  These results, while shocking, are actually consistent with the very low reported completion rates at Arizona’s three universities and the even lower rates reported by community colleges.

Where does one even start with this?

Perhaps with higher-education itself. This study takes aim at Arizona’s incredibly dysfunctional K-12 system, and rightly so. Let’s not however divert our attention from the role that higher-ed plays in all of this. The universities do not require the use of a college admissions exam for students graduating in the top quarter of, oh yes, those Arizona high-schools they just so effectively bashed.  Community colleges have even lower admission standards, some exercising an “open door” policy that don’t even require trivial little things like a high-school graduation.

This sets the tone for K-12 and in so doing sets up many Arizona children to fail. The universities and colleges have no problem taking money from unprepared kids and flunking them out in droves, but (call me crazy) it might serve them better by setting some minimum standards for entry and communicating those standards forcefully down to the K-12 system.

As you might expect in a state with half of the high-schools getting 5% or fewer of their kids to graduate from college after six-years, the K-12 system is just a mess. Most of the few bright spots are among schools of choice in the state, but on the whole we are looking at a catastrophe.  Defenders of the system will be quick to claim that it is Arizona’s relatively low spending per pupil that is to blame, but this won’t do for two broad reasons. First Arizona schools spend beyond the dreams of avarice of their predecessors from previous decades.  Second the state is relatively poor with wealth concentrated among retirees who came here from somewhere else with housing standing as the state’s main industry. You can guess where that winds up in terms of residential property tax rates for a state whose main industry is keeping retirees out of the cold.  Finally the state has a large number of old people and a large number of young people- translating to one of the highest age dependency ratios in the country. More than is normally the case around the country, Arizona taxpayers are either not working age yet, or past their prime earning years.

Finally even if the state had a huge amount of money burning a hole in its pocket (it doesn’t) it isn’t remotely clear that Arizona’s districts deserve anyone’s confidence in doing good things with the money. Better to create incentives for improvement and deliver additional funding upon the documentation of that improvement, which is the path that Arizona Governor Jan Brewer has endorsed.

The state’s accountability system jumped the shark a decade ago.   The initial AIMS test was a rigorous exam that told Arizonans information that they didn’t want to hear, especially those working in the system. This brought on to the biggest dummy down in cut scores in the recorded history of the United States.  The testing system devolved into a bad joke- rampant item exposure and drilling to individual test items.  Our kids got better and better at taking a dummy downed AIMS exam while our NAEP scores flat-lined and very few students make it through college.

This is what is so sad about Arizona activists spending their time fighting Common Core. Um, guys, Arizona is not Massachusetts.  I have no idea how Common Core will turn out or even if it will stick around but it would boggle my mind if it somehow turned out worse than the status-quo here in our patch of cactus.  Arizona has a huge problem regardless of what happens next on standards, and btw, our current set of tests and standards did approximately nothing to prevent this problem.  Simply being against Common Core without any thought about what should be done to replace AIMS is a luxury that Arizona cannot afford.

Arizona adopted A-F school grading a few years ago, but in 2012-13 61 percent of schools received an A or a B grade.  Some cruel person could have a great deal of fun cross listing the Arizona Republic’s data base on college graduates with the school grades, but let’s resist such temptation for now. I will simply note that the NAEP exam shows very low percentages of Arizona students reading with full grade level proficiency and the Arizona Board of Regents has now found catastrophically low college completion rates. We would do well therefore to set challenging standards for school grades rather than throwing around A and B grades like beads at a Mardi Gras parade.

In short, I believe that Arizona needs a coordinated effort at the K-12 and higher education levels to toughen up what is an incredibly soft system.  Arizona’s educators policymakers are not bad people, and it was not wicked motivations that got us in to this mess. It seems nice not to require high-school students to do much of anything to graduate from high-school. It feels egalitarian and democratic to have open door policies in higher education. We can hope against hope that the handful of Arizona schools getting C grades will strive to get A/B grades, but it feels kinder and gentler to rig the game in such a way that profoundly mediocre results can get you a good grade. The road to hell-in this case backwater status- is paved with good intentions.

The problem with the delicate approach is that it systematically puts a higher priority on the comfort level of adults rather than the needs of Arizona’s children.  You can’t paper over illiteracy and the consequences of all this softness is a system that is failing to prepare students for the future.

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9 Responses to Epic Fail in Arizona

  1. Mike G. says:

    Great post. “boom”?

  2. Matthew Ladner says:

    Thanks guys- I told the lovely Mrs. Ladner this morning that I don’t know whether to keep trying or to pack up the car and flee the state in panic.

    I was mostly kidding, but only mostly.

  3. Matthew Ladner says:

    I see your “we invented vouchers, son” with a “we invented scholarship tax credits, son” and raise you with “we also invented education savings accounts, son.”

    • Greg Forster says:

      Yeah, but you said you were considering moving. I just thought I’d do my part for my state and remind you that if AZ isn’t working for you, there are other options.

      Plus, there’s, you know, this.

  4. Matthew Ladner says:

    Hmmmm….

  5. Jan says:

    Great post. We, unfortunately, just relocated back to Arizona, and had terrible experiences 11 years ago with the school system. Our youngest is now in high school, and we just registered her at a school we had hoped was the best of the worst, because finding a good school here is like finding a needle in a hay stack. However, our fears and apprehension were confirmed when we found out this school does weird “block” scheduling and only offers CORE classes in half year cram the work in sessions. We had experience with this 11 years ago, and upon moving to a different state, we were told that this type of program is ineffective at establishing a firm and strong educational foundation that will allow the student to master the necessary skills to take on college/university. So, maybe that’s where the problem resides. You cannot realistically teach a traditional core class in a half year even if you torture the student with 90 minute classes. At a certain point the adolescent turns-off and tunes out. When we left in 2003, it was assessed that our older 2 children were 2-3 years behind in curriculum and content knowledge, and had to struggle to catch up. My youngest is being forced to repeat courses she already took in 8th grade again in 9th, and she’s not even going to have 9th grade World History–no social studies at all in 9th grade. So, yes a little over a decade later and I see Arizona has not changed in a positive way with respect to education, and I have a child that does not plan to attend an Arizona college/university. It is scary to think she won’t be prepared. Contemplating homeschooling.

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