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New standards and high-quality assessment are essential for Arizona students

Students620When the Common Core State Standards were being drafted, many Arizona teachers provided input and feedback which were incorporated into the actual standards that were adopted by 45 states. I know because I was one of them, working alongside other Arizona educators, ultimately helping our state to leave a footprint on the standards themselves.

As a local educator for 17 years, I know firsthand that Arizona’s College and Career Ready Standards (formerly known as the Common Core Standards) are what is best for Arizona’s kids. These standards are working in Arizona classrooms. Students are learning more and enjoying the lessons that my husband (he’s an Arizona physics teacher), my colleagues, my children’s teachers, and I have selected based upon our curriculum choices. In my own classroom, I have already seen a positive difference in student learning and in enhancing student’s ability to think critically. Students are more engaged in learning that is more relevant, student centered, and 21st century focused.

Prior to the State Board’s adoption of the Common Core State Standards, I had the privilege to serve with other Arizona teachers and give input on the relevancy and rigor of these standards in our state.  What we found in our comparisons were that nearly all of the Arizona English Language Arts standards were imbedded in the Common Core State Standards.  After the adoption of these standards in the summer of 2010, I had the opportunity to serve on the review and crosswalk committees ensuring that we were able to retain what was necessary for Arizona’s students. For example, we felt strongly that we needed to preserve the focus on informative text and business writing to ensure our graduates are prepared for life after high school. Thus, we retained necessary standards, making them specific to our state’s educational needs.

Now that Arizona has new standards, the next step is for the state to adopt a new high-quality assessment that is aligned to the standards so we can provide a more accurate measurement of how well children are learning the standards. We also need to be able to tell parents if their child is on track for college and career and give teachers like me the timely information we need to help our students learn. It is extremely important that the new assessment allows students to move beyond memorization to measure critical thinking and problem solving skills. This will ensure less teaching to the test and more time to focus on developing our students’ in-depth knowledge of all content areas.

Since 2005, I have been involved in every AIMS committee related to reading and writing – from item review, item selection, item writing, reviewing for content bias, and even the evaluation of cut scores. I truly am an ambassador of the assessment. However, AIMS is limited by its reporting capacity and only indicates high school proficiency of Arizona students at the 10th grade level. If we are going to have students who are prepared to compete with their peers from across the country for the best jobs, we need a tool to see how students are doing along the way and how they compare to others at their same grade level across the nation not merely the state.

As a member of the State Educator Item Review team for PARCC, I have played an active and very vocal role in evaluating questions that will be included on the PARCC assessment. I am heading to my fourth meeting next month to meet face-to-face with teams of educators from across the country to evaluate test items for difficulty, alignment to the standards, and appropriateness for students. Our team has reviewed at least 400 to 500 test items so far and if anyone on the educator team does not think it is appropriate for students, then it absolutely does not get put on the test.

Unlike the AIMS development process, professional test item writers are preparing the test items that we review. Many are former educators themselves, but have become experts in writing test questions. By removing the subjectivity from the test items, Arizona’s and the nation’s students gain an advantage – there is no skewing towards certain student groups, the items are free of content bias, and the items can accurately test the skill level of a student.

Being a part of PARCC does not mean that the State Board has to select this test as the new assessment for Arizona. But, it does mean that Arizona educators are leaving their footprint on the test that many states will use to evaluate their students. Being part of a consortium of states is a cost-effective solution to developing a high-quality assessment that is comprehensive and comparable across states. As an educator, I welcome the opportunity to utilize this forward-thinking test to obtain a more accurate account of how my students are really doing compared to other students in other states.

The changes we have made and continue to make in classrooms across Arizona are monumental. We need to advance the education of our students because the world is advancing around us. Our children deserve a well-balanced education that is cross-curricular in nature and applicable in the real world to carry them beyond the K-12 learning scope.

Like many others, I became a teacher because I truly wanted to make a difference in the world and help prepare my students for success in life. This is towards what the new standards are striving with their rigor. My teacher colleagues are equally as supportive of these more rigorous standards and hope that we can soon have an assessment that accurately measures what they are learning in the classroom.

- Rachel Stafford teaches Advanced Placement English Language Arts at Mesquite High School in Gilbert.

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