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Smart AZ the Rest

Who you calling stupid? Tom Horne isn't buying Arizona's meager ranking on a recent national education survey.
Emily Piraino

It's Arizona's high standards that are screwing us. At least that's what Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne is saying about Arizona's abysmal ranking in a national education study released last month. In Morgan Quitno's annual Education State Rankings report, Arizona ranked 48th, just above Nevada and New Mexico. But according to Horne, that's only because we've set the academic bar so high for students here that they can't possibly compete with, say, Iowa (No. 8) or Arkansas (No. 36).

Horne wants us to ignore the report because Morgan Quitno, a Kansas-based publisher of reference books and monthly reports that compare states and cities in different subject areas, uses lousy criteria. Its annual Education State Rankings may be based on 21 factors including per-pupil expenditures; high school graduation rates; and reading, writing and math proficiency, but Horne says its findings don't count because Morgan Quitno isn't using standardized test scores to rank the 50 states. Arizona's towering standards are the reason most of its students are wearing a categorical dunce cap, at least as far as Morgan Quitno is concerned.

Arizona may be the 48th smartest state, and (according to another recent Morgan Quitno list) the third "Most Dangerous State" in the Union, but we did rank 19th on the publisher's "Most Improved States" list. So at least Arizonans can say, "We may be stupid and dangerous, but we're getting better!"

New Times: So Morgan Quitno says we're a bunch of dummies. Who are these guys, anyway?

Tom Horne: I have no idea. I don't know anything about them. But you can see from the press releases we put out that Arizona students do very well on nationally normed tests. On the average, our students were in the 61st percentile in math. That's very high. We don't have a very high percentage [of students] that have scored as "proficient" on our own test, but that's because we have high standards and a lot of states have low standards. Our kids are well-educated; it's just that we're demanding more of them.

NT: I wonder if those high standards were taken into consideration by Morgan Quitno when they ranked us as dummies.

Horne: No. They did it by percentage of proficient students. If you want to compare states, you have to use a nationally normed test.

NT: Like?

Horne: Well, in this case, the Stanford Nine.

NT: But the Stanford Nine is about to be retired in Arizona. Why are we switching?

Horne: We're going to the TerraNova [test]. It's $6 million less expensive. We're doing it to save money.

NT: But by going with a cheaper proficiency test, we might score even lower next year.

Horne: Well, whenever you switch tests, you do score lower. So we probably will score lower.

NT: Oh my God! Lower than 48th smartest state?

Horne: Well, [Morgan Quitno is] not measuring us by that, though. They're measuring by percent proficiency, and each state has its own standard of proficiency. We have very high standards, so less of our kids score as "proficient." In Arkansas, say, where they have low standards, a higher percentage of kids will score proficient because it's easier to. That's not a valid comparison. You need to use a nationally normed test if you're going to compare or rank states.

NT: Does the Morgan Quitno report indicate that we have a lousy education system, or that people who live here are so stupid they can't be taught anything?

Horne: Well, they're implying that our students are not as well educated. But they're wrong. The nationally normed test shows that our students are actually better educated.

NT: Maybe they meant that people who are stupid are drawn to Arizona. Or that we grow stupid people.

Horne: I wasn't able to figure that out. I think they're flat wrong. Our kids score well compared to other states in every grade level and subject. On the Scholastic Aptitude Test, Arizona's verbal was 523 compared to the national average of 508. And on math, we were 524 compared to the national average of 515.

NT: We're off the map!

Horne: We are off the map on tests that are given in more than one state, so you can compare from state to state. The SAT is given in different states, so you could do a valid comparison.

NT: Morgan Quitno says we're 48th. Where would you rank us?

Horne: (Long pause.) By the time you consider all the measures, we're about in the middle. Now, the test scores [in Arizona's press releases] are considerably higher, but there are other tests where we don't do as well. So I'd put us about in the middle in terms of achievement. In resources expended, we really are at the bottom. On what we spend per pupil, we're 49 out of 50 states.

NT: Youch. What's being done about that?

Horne: I've devoted my career to increasing resources for education. I'll continue to do that. As the economy turns around and the Legislature has more money available to it, we need to persuade them to give a higher priority to education.

NT: I'm sure they'll go for that.

Horne: My way of preparing for that is to emphasize accountability. I'm holding both students and schools accountable. First we help them, then we have an intervention.

NT: What would a school intervention entail? Busting in on low-rent teachers and demanding that they back away from the eraser?

Horne: Well, we're about to find out. We've only had 12 schools on the failing list. In the Arizona system, if you're underperforming three years in a row, you're failing and need an intervention. Last year we had 80 schools that were underperforming. But we got 65 of the 80 to turn their test scores around.

NT: Well, at least we did better than New Mexico. And of course Massachusetts comes out on top -- they had the first elementary school and the first college in the country -- they got a head start!

Horne: Mm-hmm. It's more than that. I would find out what their definition of proficiency is. It would be interesting to see what level of proficiency they used in Massachusetts.

NT: So, Morgan Quitno takes into consideration student reading, writing and math proficiency. And teacher salaries, for some reason.

Horne: We need to pay them more. I agree with that part. The benefit of a higher salary is that it attracts and retains more highly qualified people.

NT: In the meantime, this whole thing is a little embarrassing. I mean, Kentucky scored higher than we did.

Horne: Mm-hmm. It's false. And we do need to do something about the resources. In the meantime, I'm making kids and schools accountable. Because in today's economy, you have to be proficient in reading, writing and math.

NT: I went to school in Arizona. Ask me a math question.

Horne: Okay. Estimate the square root of 15.

NT: I can't! I live in Arizona!

Horne: You can.

NT: I don't know. Three?

Horne: That's not bad. It's about three and a half. I got asked that question on NPR recently. I figured it out quickly.

NT: You were able to figure the square root of 15, just like that? Where are you from?

Horne: New York.

NT: Well, there you go. New York is the sixth smartest state.

Horne: I went to high school there, and I went to Harvard.

NT: In that case, what's 44 times 379?

Horne: Do you want me to estimate it?

NT: No! You went to Harvard. I want the answer!

Horne: Would you know what the answer was if I told you?

NT: No! I went to school in Arizona! I can barely add.

Horne: Okay, but if I give you the answer, you won't know if it's right or wrong.

NT: Maybe Morgan Quitno is right. We need a calculator.

E-mail robrt.pela@newtimes.com


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