The faces behind the data: Scottsdale Schools seek individual growth amongst students

The Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board is comprised of, from left, Sandy Kravetz, Allyson Beckham, Kim Hartmann, Pam Kirby, and Barbara Perleberg. Superintendent Dr. Denise Birdwell and Executive Administrative Coordinator Sondra Como. (photo by Melissa Fittro)

To fulfill one Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board member’s dream of propelling SUSD into one of the top districts in the nation, they would have to climb more than 2,000 spots. ranks SUSD as No. 2,571 out of 10,574; SUSD is also ranked at No. 8 in the state of Arizona, according to education ranking site.

The sights have been set for Scottsdale’s 29 schools, as SUSD Assistant Superintendent of Accountability and Instruction Dr. Anna McCauley outlined the district’s 2017 AzMERIT test results at the first regular governing board meeting of the 2017-18 school year.

The meeting was held Tuesday, Aug. 15, at Coronado High School, 7501 E. Virginia Ave. in Scottsdale.

Arizona’s Measurement of Educational Readiness to Inform Teaching, most commonly known as AzMERIT, replaced the former Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards, or AIMS tests in 2015.

Ultimately, results show Scottsdale’s students are incrementally improving in their reading, writing and math skills, district officials contend.

Dr. McCauley presented district and state data to reflect student-level gains, as the district and board have seen grade-level comparisons, she noted.

“I thought I’d show you another way of looking at this data, and providing insight into meaningfulness of looking at it this way” Dr. McCauley explained.

“We’re not comparing last year’s fourth grade to this year’s fourth grade — we’re looking at how students have moved from third to fourth, and third to fourth to fifth (grades).”

As publicly noted by the governing board, Dr. McCauley’s way of using data to better identify student achievement — or lack there of — has been a district change in recent years. Over the summer, the Scottsdale Schools community worked on what district officials coined “growth mindset” and identifying goals.

Additionally, one of SUSD’s five high schools, Coronado High School, spent their summer working on district-initiative, Coronado Success Initiative, to turn student achievement around.

“When we compare students to themselves, this has a greater value to moving the needle for the individual students,” Dr. McCauley told the governing board.

“Remember our vision of ensuring all individual learners reach their full potential. We used this data to create a complete picture to help us improve and keep reaching for greater lengths.”

With the AzMERIT results presentation and discussion of reaching for the stars, Dr. McCauley announced that all eighth grade students will be taking an assessment called ACT Aspire, which is modeled after the ACT test; and, all high school juniors will be taking the ACT test this year.

Both tests will be paid for by SUSD, Dr. McCauley said.

A Tonalea K-8 student was honored during a school assembly on Friday, Aug. 11, celebrating the school’s AzMERIT results. (photo by SUSD)

Scottsdale Schools comparisons

The AzMERIT assesses third through eighth graders on English language arts and math; while ninth, 10th and 11th grades take assessments in English, Algebra I, Geometry and Algebra II.

The differences between the former AIMS tests and AzMERIT include assessing Arizona academic standards versus assessing college readiness standards, and not needing to pass the state test to be awarded a diploma.

Additionally, students used conventional pencil and paper to fill out a multiple choice answer sheet for the AIMS, while AzMERIT utilizes technology and multiple answering methods.

“For this year, in our two-year gains we saw the greatest gains in ELA (English language arts) from grades third to fourth, and sixth to seventh,” Dr. McCauley noted. “Greatest gains in math were from seventh to eighth grade, and eighth grade to algebra.”

In comparing to state information, Dr. McCauley says SUSD was similar in trending areas.

“In math we saw we were similar to the state in fifth and sixth grade, and algebra to geometry. There were not any areas that I could see where we went down but the state went up,” she noted.

In addition to state comparisons, Dr. McCauley says several schools across the district had 100 percent of students who were already identified as highly proficient, remain in that category.

On Friday, Aug. 11, Tonalea K-8 celebrated 87 percent of its students who met their personal growth goals on AzMERIT with a school assembly.

“They are a school on this journey, and so their growth has been phenomenal,” Dr. McCauley said of Tonalea K-8. “When we did our accolades at all of the learning communities, they had the most number of grade levels and subjects that maintained a 100 percent highly proficiency, and they had some of the greatest growth.”

On June 30, 2016, the then-governing board voted 5-0 to close the elementary school at 7501 E. Oak St. District officials had been eying the merger for a couple of months, stating the current 320 students have outgrown the Tonalea Elementary campus, in addition to having below-average test scores, Independent records show.

Tonalea Elementary students moved to then-Supai Middle School campus to create kindergarten through eighth grade school, Tonalea K-8.

“One of the aspects of this data, particularly Tonalea, as you look at this data and you look year to year we’re beginning to look at the high school students to identify the gaps,” Superintendent Dr. Denise Birdwell said.

“If you look at the freshmen and say ‘you’ve made it to the freshman year, here are the pieces that are missing — how do we target tutoring and intervention for the gaps?’ Then, go back down into the elementary and middle level and address that now, so we’re closing those gaps from both sides.”

Dr. Birdwell says the teachers, parents and students can pinpoint individual areas in need of improvement.

“You have the data to work with individual students on skill sets that have been created over a 5-year period, or 6-year period,” Dr. Birdwell explained. “Begin to close that while moving forward, say in algebra. That’s a really critical piece to truly understand, targeting tutoring vs homework time.”

A view of the Tonalea K-8 assembly on Friday, Aug. 11. (photo by SUSD)

Seeking No. 1

Looking to the future, Dr. McCauley and her team are working with school principals and assistant principals to understand the challenges moving forward through data.

Over the summer, an “Admin Academy” was hosted over several days, where one exercise had staff members identify goals and areas for improvement.

Through what Dr. McCauley calls Data Dialogue, principals created predictions for how their students might do on an assessment. They followed these predictions with identifying their assumptions, observing the data, looking for patterns and trends, identifying areas for improvement and targeting two goal areas.

“That’s what we do with the data but we’re not done, we have a lot more to do,” Dr. McCauley explained.

Up next, a data advisory group composed of principals and assistant principals will be created to help validate data at the school level. Secondly, progress monitoring via district interim assessments will be given three times this year, Dr. McCauley said, made up of 22-25 items that align to curriculum maps.

Testing calendars for the school groups have been posted to SUSD’s website at Testing schedules include:

  • 8th grade ACT Aspire: Oct. 23-27;
  • 11th grade ACT: Feb. 27-28;
  • The three-time interim formative assessment is slated to be once in the fall, winter and spring, generally, for all grade levels.

“I’m hopeful, and what I’ll be looking for, is Scottsdale Unified begins to climb in the rankings of the Top 10,” Governing Board Vice President Pam Kirby said of the state’s top school districts. “There’s no reason we shouldn’t be No. 1. We have an amazing community to make that happen.”

Northeast Valley News Editor Melissa Rosequist can be e-mailed at or can be followed on Twitter at

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