Arizona’s students rank 43rd in the nation for academic achievement. At first glance that might seem pretty lousy. But a new study by the Manhattan Institute finds that Arizona scores so low because its students face more severe life challenges than those in other states. Remove the effects of student characteristics, and Arizona schools rank a much less alarming 30th.
The best comparison we have for states’ academic outcomes is eighth-grade scores on the Nation’s Report Card, a test administered by the U.S. Department of Education. Scores for eighth grade are preferable because they’re the oldest grade for which state-by-state comparisons are available.
Arizona schools look pretty bad by this yardstick. In reading, only 66 percent of Arizona students reach the “basic” level of achievement, the lowest level recognized by the test. In math, 61 percent of students reach the “basic” level. These scores rank Arizona 43rd in the nation.
However, there’s more to the story than meets the eye. Some students come to school more ready to learn than others because of factors beyond the schools’ control. While some students are comfortable, others are poor; while some come from safe neighborhoods, others must struggle with the impact of crime and drugs; while some are brought up speaking English, others arrive at school facing a language barrier.
Arizona’s students are worse off than the national average in areas affecting students’ ability to learn. They’re poorer and less healthy, they’re more likely to come from dangerous neighborhoods and broken homes, they’re less likely to speak English, and so on. We should take this reality into account when we evaluate Arizona’s schools in comparison with those in the rest of the nation.
A study by the Manhattan Institute allows us to do just that. We measured the levels of 16 social factors that researchers agree affect student outcomes. We combined all these data into a single measurement we call the “Teachability Index.”
By examining each state’s academic performance and its score on the Teachability Index, we were able to measure which states’ schools were truly performing well and which just looked good because of student characteristics. We compared the actual academic performance of students in each state with the level of performance we would statistically expect those students to achieve given the extent of their disadvantages. Some states did significantly better than we would expect based on their students’ characteristics, while others did significantly worse.
Arizona’s schools do exactly as well as their student demographics would predict. Levels of the student disadvantages we measured were 20.1 percent worse than the national average in Arizona. Taking these disadvantages into account, we find that Arizona’s student achievement is almost exactly what we would expect it to be. This ranks Arizona 30th among the states in academic outcomes adjusted for student characteristics - still in the bottom half, but a lot better than they looked before the adjustment.
Arizona still has a lot of room for improvement. Some other states with highly disadvantaged students do a much better job of teaching them. North Carolina’s students have disadvantages 13.8 percent worse than the national average but perform at 109 percent of expectations, which ranks them fifth in the nation for academic performance adjusted for student characteristics. On the other hand, Mississippi’s students have disadvantages 12.5 percent below average, but perform at only 84 percent of expectations, ranking them 49th in the nation.
What can be done to improve Arizona schools’ performance? Strengthening its school choice and accountability testing policies would help. We found that states with these reforms had significantly better academic outcomes after student characteristics were taken into account. This adds to a solid body of academic research finding that these reforms improve the academic achievement of disadvantaged students by giving schools a powerful incentive to serve them better.
Arizona’s schools should not be condemned simply because student disadvantages bring their test scores down, but neither should they be excused from working toward greater progress. Given what we spend on education, we have a right to expect that schools will do a good job even with disadvantaged students. Arizona’s schools are doing an adequate job, but they could be doing better.