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For the first time since 2015, Flagstaff high schoolers did not take the state-issued standardized AzMERIT exam this spring.

Instead, ninth through 11th graders completed one of the ACT college entrance exam’s suite of standardized tests: Aspire for freshmen, the PreACT for sophomores and the ACT for juniors.

All students at Flagstaff High School and Coconino High School – except seniors, who had the day off – completed these exams last Tuesday, fulfilling the state’s testing requirements for the year.

Flagstaff Unified School District, in partnership with the Helios Education Foundation, has provided the ACT free to Flagstaff juniors for eight years, saving students the minimum $50 exam fee required to take the exam individually. In previous years, juniors completed both the ACT and AzMERIT.

Following state legislation passed in 2016, state educators created a “menu” of standardized tests that could be used to replace AzMERIT. The list was approved by the Arizona State Board of Education last year and this school year became the first when high schools could choose one of several other rigorous standardized tests: ACT, SAT, AP exams, Cambridge International Exams or International Baccalaureate exams.

“The primary reason we chose [the ACT] is that it’s meaningful for students. AzMERIT has no consequences or benefits for the student level. They don’t have to pass it. They don’t have to score a certain score to move on. They no longer receive any tuition waivers or scholarships like they used to with AIMS a long time ago,” Robert Hagstrom, FUSD director of research and assessment, said.

Unlike AIMS, which AzMERIT replaced in 2015, the current test is not even a graduation requirement.

With a national test like the ACT, though, schools can compare student performance data throughout the country and analyze it better and more frequently.

FUSD Assistant Superintendent Mary K. Walton said that, instead of students taking an exam at the end of the year that is no longer applicable to them when results are released, the ACT suite allows for more immediate learning support.

To provide such data, ninth graders have taken the Aspire test three times: at the beginning of the school year, before Thanksgiving and last week.

The ACT suite also takes less time to complete. Though AzMERIT only tests English Language Arts and mathematics, Walton said it can take weeks for a school to complete testing because each grade level completes just one subject at a time. The ACT’s English Language Arts, mathematics and science sections only take one day to complete altogether.

Hagstrom visited the schools on exam days and said there was a noticeable difference in students taking the two different exams.

“It was really nice to see them giving it their best effort [this year]. I think that’s because it’s meaningful. Kids know what the ACT is and what it stands for and what they can do with it. Regardless of which version they’re taking, I think they’re invested,” he said.

Allowing schools to choose their preferred exam has a downside, though, because the state could lose more than $300 million in federal funding for violating the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Education denied Arizona’s request for a waiver allowing schools to replace AzMERIT in this way. Unless federal officials can be persuaded otherwise, all Arizona high schools will return to the state-issued test next year and students will complete the exam they skipped.

Though FUSD hopes to eventually expand the ACT suite to Summit High School and all K-8 students, it must await these funding decisions.

“Assessment is really important for so many reasons. It guides instruction. It makes sure that we have comparative data to the rest of the state and the nation in order to make sure that our kids are really ready in their postsecondary life. We feel that that is an investment that we need to make,” Walton said.

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Kaitlin Olson can be reached at the office at kolson@azdailysun.com or by phone at (928) 556-2253. 

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