Matthew Ladner

Don't let demographics block academic growth

Posted on September 08, 2008 | Type: Op-Ed | Author: Matthew Ladner
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The Morrison Institute's report "Beat the Odds" told the story of a demographer who called the American Southwest the "Appalachia of the 21st century."

Because Hispanic students generally score poorly on standardized tests, are less likely to graduate from high school, less likely still to attend college, the demographer said Appalachia-like poverty was only a matter of time.

For Arizona, the story gets worse.

The state most closely associated with Appalachian poverty, West Virginia, already outscores Arizona on many national exams.

We can, however, improve.

In 1998, Arizona and Florida had some of the country's worst test scores in fourth-grade reading. Both states have high percentages of low-income and minority children.

In 1999, however, Florida implemented a robust set of reforms.

They created academic standards and real consequences for prolonged public school failure.

Florida lawmakers reformed reading instruction and ended the social promotion of elementary students who hadn't learned to read.

Florida created the largest parental-choice programs in the nation, and just last year opened twice as many charter schools as Arizona.

In 1998, only 53 percent of Florida fourth graders could read at a basic level, according to the Nation's Report Card fourth. By 2007, that number had increased to 70 percent.

During that same period, Arizona's scores increased from 51 to 56 percent on the same test.

In 2007, after a decade of strong improvement, Florida's low-income Hispanics outscored the statewide average for all students in Arizona.

Arizona has a huge opportunity: We can emulate and build upon on Florida's reforms.

"Fortune Favors the Bold," a new report from the Goldwater Institute calls for far-reaching reforms in public-school governance, the reworking of the state's broken system of student testing, the expansion of parental choice, and the adoption of a system that measures teacher quality.

California allows public schools to convert to charter schools with a vote of the faculty. Arizona should follow suit.

Florida has done a great job with its academic standards and testing. So should we.

Some schooling systems have begun to judge success based upon the amount of testing progress made in a school year rather than a "pass or fail" standard. We should do the same.

If that sounds ambitious, consider the status quo. Arizona spends more than $8,000 per student each year and nearly half of all fourth-graders can't read.

Regardless of whether you are liberal, conservative or something in between, all Arizonans should demand better. The future of our state depends upon it.

Arizona lawmakers took an important step in this direction last session when a large bipartisan majority voted to revamp Arizona's AIMS test. Republicans and Democrats should continue to seek common ground in pursuing vital reforms.

Demographics are not destiny. The question we face is not can disadvantaged students learn. Florida shows they can.

The question is about Arizona's adults: Can we summon the courage needed to reform our 19th-century schooling model for a 21st-century world?

The writer is vice president of research at the Goldwater Institute, goldwaterinstitute.org.

 

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