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Closing the Gap – Arizona Raises Expectations for Students

• Patricia Levesque

AZ #ProficiencyMatters


In 1912, Arizona became the last contiguous state to enter the union. Fast forward 100+ years, and this latecomer is emerging as a national leader in a tremendously important area: raising expectations for students.

Each state sets its own academic requirements for reading and math, and its own passing scores on state tests to determine if students truly are proficient in the subjects. In some states, test scores accurately reflect proficiency. In others they do not because passing scores are set too low.

Over the last five years, Arizona’s education leaders have made courageous decisions to raise standards, create more rigorous assessments and raise expectations for student proficiency. The state extended the same high expectations on the Arizona’s alternative assessments too.

And the result? State academic assessments now reflect reality rather than wishful thinking.

Unfortunately this has not always been the case. Arizona’s tests used to paint a picture of overwhelming success – even when most students didn’t have fundamental knowledge and skills in core subjects.

In 2013, Arizona’s Instrument to Measures Standards (AIMS) assessments reported that most students were on track academically in math and reading. For example, 77 percent of fourth-grade students scored proficient on their AIMS reading test. But test results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) – a more accurate measure of proficiency – revealed a different story.

According to NAEP, only 28 percent of Arizona fourth graders were proficient readers in 2013. This “proficiency gap” of 49 percentage points indicated Arizona was setting the bar far too low, giving parents and teachers an inflated, unrealistic view of student academic achievement.

But then something changed.

In the spring of 2015, Arizona students took the new, more challenging test – the AzMERIT. Now when students earn passing scores, it means they have an in-depth knowledge of the subject and will be prepared to enter college or begin a career following high school graduation.

Arizona’s bold leaders deserve recognition and thanks for having the political courage to do what’s best for students. And local voices agree.

“Honesty can be hard to take, but responding to it by insisting on school quality is the only way to ensure that students are prepared to choose the direction of their lives,” explained Lisa Graham Keegan, executive director of A for Arizona. “We are grateful that Arizona’s state board has set honest performance levels on our new state test.”

With AzMERIT’s more rigorous expectations, the percentage of students passing the state tests is aligned to results from NAEP. Arizona’s leaders understand these results don’t mean scores have plummeted or students know less than past years. It simply means the state is finally being honest about how well students are doing.

Best of all, parents, educators, policymakers and the public in Arizona now have accurate information to make important decisions to improve instructional opportunities and learning for their students.

As Arizona continues to improve its education system under the leadership of Governor Doug Ducey, transformation must extend beyond annual assessments. High expectations must spread to setting aspirational – yet attainable – goals for A-F school grading and Move On When Reading.

Thanks to new, honest assessments, Arizona is one giant step closer to a future where all children are able to master the knowledge and skills they will need to be successful in the next grade and life after high school.

Visit for more facts, graphics and sharable content. Join the conversation online with the hashtag #ProficiencyMatters.

Read more in the #Proficiency Matters series:

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  • Arizona academic assessments now reflect reality rather than wishful thinking. #ProficiencyMatters! via @ExcelinEd
  • Arizona recognizes #ProficiencyMatters and is working to close the gap. Learn more from @ExcelinEd:


About the author

Patricia Levesque @levesquepat

Patricia is the Chief Executive Officer for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. She served as Governor Jeb Bush’s deputy chief of staff for education, enterprise solutions for government, minority procurement, and business and professional regulation. Previously, Patricia served six years in the Florida Legislature in the Speakers Office and as staff director over education policy. Contact Patricia at