Students in six of seven school districts in Santa Cruz County scored below the state passing rate on last year’s mathematics standardized tests. And while they fared better on the English language arts (ELA) exams, only three local districts exceeded the statewide passing average.

The statewide results were disappointing in their own right, and results released on Friday by the Arizona Department of Education showed that 38 percent of tested students passed the ELA exams and 31 percent reached or passed the threshold on math.

Arizona public schools, which test third- through eighth-grade students, as well as 10th-grade high schoolers, saw an overall 4-percent drop in ELA test scores and an 11-percent decline in mathematics, compared to 2018-2019 data. Arizona students were not assessed in the 2019-2020 school year due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

State and local officials are putting an asterisk on this year’s results, saying they illustrate the negative effects of the pandemic.

“COVID-19 significantly impacted students and families, and scores reflect the challenging learning environments many students faced,” the Arizona Department of Education said in a new news release, adding that: “Due to the dramatic, and disproportionate impact COVID-19 had on student learning, comparing results of SY20/21 to previous years should be done with extreme caution, otherwise inferences may be invalid.”

Last spring, students took the AzM2 standardized test, which replaced the AzMERIT exam, as well as the Multi-State Alternative Assessment (MSAA), an alternative exam. As a whole, 14 percent of students in Santa Cruz County passed the math portion of the tests, while 26 percent passed ELA.

At the Nogales Unified School District, the largest district in the county, 23 percent of students passed the ELA assessment and 12 percent passed math. The Santa Cruz Valley Unified School District, the county’s second-largest, also saw only 12 percent of its tested students pass the math exam. Twenty-six percent of SCVUSD students earned a passing score on ELA.

Test participation rates also fell in 2020-2021 – another change attributed to the pandemic. The ADE said that while 95 percent or more of eligible Arizona students took its tests in past years, in 2021, only 84 percent took the ELA assessment and 86 percent took the mathematics section.

Information provided by SCVUSD showed that student test participation at the elementary and middle school levels ranged between 90 and 98 percent, while 86 percent of 10th graders participated at the high school level.

“We worked hard across all five sites to test as many of our students as possible so we could have as much data as possible to start those conversations with students upon their return,” Assistant Superintendent Stephen Schadler told the NI in an email.

At NUSD, the district-wide participation rate was 89 percent, Superintendent Fernando Parra said, noting that in past years the district “usually comes very close to 100 percent tested.”

Parra suggested that student demographics at NUSD might have exacerbated the challenges presented by the pandemic and the switch from AzMERIT to the AzM2 assessment.

“Not only were participation rates impacted and modifications made to tests, but there were also learning disruptions that may have impacted some subgroups, such as our English Language Learners (which comprise about 21 percent of the district) more than others,” he wrote in an email.

Some of the area’s smaller districts fared better on the 2021 tests.

Mexicayotl Academy, a K-8 charter school in Nogales, scored the highest in the county and exceeded both state averages with 52 percent of students passing the ELA portion and 45 percent of students exceeding the math threshold.

The Santa Cruz Elementary School District, which operates the K-8 Little Red School, and the Sonoita Elementary School District, which runs the Elgin School, both exceeded the state ELA average with 41 percent and 49 percent, respectively. Their passing rates on math were 28 percent at Little Red and 29 percent at the Elgin School.

Students who took the tests at Patagonia Elementary School fell slightly below the state ELA average with a passing rate of 36 percent, while 19 percent passed the math segment. Scores for Patagonia Union High School were not available, as only 14 10th-graders took the tests – too few for the results to be publicly released.

At SCVUSD, Schadler said: “Clearly our student test scores do not reflect the academic level we strive for.” But he added that the shifts in the district’s learning systems, classrooms resources and technology infrastructure would help students achieve their academic goals in the future.

Parra said that NUSD has “made significant gains in the use of technology,” adding that it has become a 1-to-1 technology district, meaning that each student has access to their own computing device.

That should make a difference going forward, he said.

“This increase in access to technology will not only help with the continuity of teaching and learning this year for any students who are absent due to COVID-19, but will enable the district to leverage online intervention programs and (provide) another strategy to differentiate student instruction to remediate and accelerate student learning in ELA and math,” he said.

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