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Several state-based reforms are in the works for Flagstaff and area schools.

New academic standards and standardized tests, a policy that retains third-graders if they're not reading at least near grade level, and early graduation by exam already have the gears turning in the minds of teachers and administrators, even though the initiatives won't go into effect for two or three more years.

The reforms come as results of national tests once again show that Arizona fourth- and eighth-graders score below the national averages in reading and math, despite making substantial progress this year. Overall, barely a third of those Arizona students tested showed grade-level proficiency in reading and math on national tests, even though approximately two-thirds pass the state-level tests in the same subjects (see related story, Page A6).

Vince Yanez, executive director of Arizona's State Board of Education, joined about 100 local teachers and education advocates at Northern Arizona University Tuesday for a symposium that went over the basics of the Governor's "Arizona Pillars" of education reform plan. Administrators and school board members from Flagstaff, Williams and Grand Canyon joined in the conversation.

The reforms address big-picture consistency and students' individual abilities, and affect charters as well as traditional public schools.

-- Nationally aligned academic standards: Known also as "Common Core" standards, this is a state-led initiative that has the endorsement of 45 states and the District of Columbia. Although it promotes national consistency, this is a voluntary reform conceived by the states, not the federal Department of Education, and it isn't a curriculum.

The idea is to set clear standards for language arts (English) and math to prepare high school graduates for college or the workforce.

With revised standards come new, common tests. The standardized AIMS test will undergo a facelift. Tests developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) will test students throughout the year for ongoing feedback and be computer-based for timely results. The current AIMS model tests students in April and returns results after the school year has ended, giving teachers a dated snapshot of their students' achievements.

PARCC is a 24-state consortium of which Arizona is a part. The initiative is funded by a $186 million grant through the federal "Race to the Top" competition.

These standards and exams will be fully implemented by the 2014-15 school year.

-- Move on When Reading: This puts a high-stakes twist to third grade. If a child "falls far below" grade level on the third-grade state reading test, he or she will be held back.

In 2011, 6 percent of Flagstaff Unified School District's third-graders (and 5 percent of third-graders statewide) were "far below" reading standards. Students who are not passing the AIMS test but are "approaching" standards -- as an additional 19 percent of FUSD thirds-graders were last year - will still be promoted. Supplementary instruction and a new reading teacher are options for retained children.

Exceptions to the retention rule will be made for students with disabilities (including disabled students who have already been retained), children with reading deficiencies who have been retained twice, English language-learners with less than two years of English instruction, and students who have passed another approved test of reading ability. Parents can also appeal to the local school board.

Schools began notifying parents of kindergartners and first-graders about this shift last school year. The change goes into effect in the 2013-14 school year.

FUSD Superintendent Barbara Hickman said the district already uses an individualized "response to intervention" tactic for elementary school reading, so this won't be a radical adjustment.

-- Move on When Ready/Grand Canyon Diploma: This voluntary pathway allows a high schooler to earn a high school diploma as early as the end of 10th grade by passing a board-approved exam.

A 16-year-old with a so-called "Grand Canyon Diploma" is eligible to enter community college, but not directly enter a four-year university. Yanez said the diploma isn't designed to force students out of high school early -- students who qualify for early graduation can choose to remain in high school -- and he expected that sophomore-year graduates wouldn't be too common. Students can also earn the diploma at any point during or at the completion of 11th or 12th grade.

The early graduation route requires success on the Cambridge International Examinations, ACT QualityCore, International Baccalaureate or College Board Advanced Placement test, and indicates that a student is ready for non-remedial, college-level work. Unlike a general equivalency diploma, there is a minimum of transitional high school coursework required.

The program goes live in the 2012-2013 school year. Several schools in the Phoenix and Tucson areas are piloting the program already, along with the entire Yuma Union High School District.

Hillary Davis can be reached at hdavis@azdailysun.com or 556-2261.

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