Scottsdale Unified Needs an Appetite for Disruption

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Update from the Arizona Republic on Scottsdale Unified enrollment trends. I am a SUSD taxpayer and have taken a look at SUSD from time to time as a microcosm of how school choice programs interact. Scottsdale faces a good deal of competition from charters and to a lesser degree private schools, and also has been unusually open to open enrollment transfers for a fancy district.

So first the good news: SUSD academic performance continued to improve with the release of the 2018 AZMerit scores:

A previous district sponsored study found that the top issue identified by families living in the Scottsdale district but sending their students elsewhere was “academic rigor.” This seems to be trending in the right direction.

Now for the not so good news: as touched upon in the Republic story: looking past scandals, investigations and resignations the district has a very large amount of empty space and declining enrollment. The district also has up to $229,000,000 to spend on facilities, a source of said scandals, investigations and resignations. District enrollment is down 4,800 from the peak in 2002 and trending down. A 2012 Auditor General report found the district utilizing only 65% of capacity and the projections are for still lower enrollment. $229m is a lot of money to spend on a 22,000 and falling enrollment count and district leaders should ponder long and hard the factors that influence enrollment decisions, such as those revealed by their previous survey (“lack of academic rigor” is not easily mistranslated into “building not spiffy.”)

The Republic article details an agonizing set of choices facing the Scottsdale Unified board- spending money on facilities with declining enrollment runs the risk of needing to close the facility regardless at some future point. Without increased enrollment, closures will become inevitable. Communities don’t react well to school closures, but Scottsdale parents have been voting with their feet. A potential best strategy going forward was reported on in the Republic story:

Board member Kim Hartmann challenged the board to think about ways schools can improve to make them more desirable.

Hartmann called attention to Cheyenne Traditional School, with 955 students, which has high AzMERIT scores and has captured students from outside the district through open enrollment.

Scottsdale Unified has enough empty space to open a dozen or more Cheyenne Traditional Schools, or (better yet) a mix of other specialized programs. Who should decide which Scottsdale Unified campuses should remain open? Why not leave the decision up to parents? If the district can give more parents what they are looking for, fewer campuses will need to close-expand rather than shrink the pie. Why not give the opportunity for declining enrollment SUSD schools to specialize? Why not co-locate micro-school concepts in half empty campuses? Why not lease empty space to charter school operators to generate revenue?

The best Arizona districts are not sweating competition-they are beating it with a club. There will always be a Scottsdale Unified, however it do well to adapt to a new era and seize the opportunities afforded by it. SUSD has the potential to produce higher levels of parental satisfaction and student achievement by increasing the diversity of approaches to education. If the SUSD board would like to avoid endless hours of painful and emotional hearings on school closures (and who wouldn’t?) they would do well to delegate the decision on which campuses to close to Scottsdale parents and educators, who just might choose “none of the above.” The board should imo give educators the opportunity to specialize their schools and seek new enrollment, and create a minimum enrollment/space standard for closure. Let parents sort out the rest.



2 Responses to Scottsdale Unified Needs an Appetite for Disruption

  1. Loyd Eskildson says:

    “SUSD academic performance continued to improve with the release of the 2018 AZMerit scores.” That is a very difficult, if not impossible, assertion to prove.

    AZMERIT tests, standards, and reports focus on the proportion of pupils scoring above or below an arbitrary ‘standard.’ Few, if any, know what that ‘standard’ equates to – eg. world-leading, world’s lowest, . . .?

    Secondly, given AZMERIT’s emphasis/focus, all or almost all interpretations zero in on changes to that proportion ‘passing.’ Thus, the performance by a horde of high-scoring pupils’ could DECLINE, but as long as they didn’t cross that line, AZMERIT interpretations and reports would pay such no notice. Similarly, in reverse. AZMERIT changes from one year to the next simply reflect the movement of a very limited proportion of the total tested.

    Ergo, AZMERIT is damn near worthless, as was its predecessor AIMS. Thus, for the last 36 or so years, Arizona’s leaders, educators, parents, pupils, and press how Arizona pupil performance was changing over the years. This problem was further acerbated by the fact that periodically AIMS tests were changed, without equating the revised tests to prior versions.

    Another AZMERIT/AIMS problem – it is very difficult or almost impossible to equate AZMERIT standards/performance changes for any/all districts with that of other Arizona districts, even more so to do so for other states and our strongest economic competitors.

    Thus, AZMERIT/AIMS results at most any aggregation level aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.

    Why is this? Arizona once led the nation in its pupil testing system – performance of and changes for any/all pupils were incorporated, results were readily comparable from one year to another, from one school to another, from Arizona to any other, and to our leading economic competitors. However, the AEA/ASBA/ASA et al became very upset at the accountability it provided and persuaded the legislature to replace it with tests very limited in accountability. (Possibly in return for supporting Majority Leader Jane Hull for governor.)

    Bottom Line: Arizona’s pupil testing program and school rankings are based on a fraudulent foundation.

  2. matthewladner says:


    I certainly share your dim view of AIMS, and in addition to the flaws you note it was also the case that there was essentially no item rotation, producing an appearance of continual improvement when in fact our NAEP scores were at the time showing nothing of the sort.

    Your point about passing rates on AZMerit is a good one, and we should be getting actual scores in addition to passing rates but the publicly released file does provide trends on four different levels of achievement rather than simply passing rates. I looked at the two highest end levels comparing 2015 to 2018 and it is a mixed bag between ELA and Math- clear improvement in ELA, slippage on the high end of math. This is of course assuming that the standards are remaining consistent, and my understanding is that there is proper item rotation going on now.

    In terms of the way testing ought to work, I’m for a system that gives students a Stanford 10 or similar test on the second to last day of school and lowers the testing footprint:

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