Arizona: The Cambridge of the West

Glenn Hamer

February 12, 2016

Arizona has proven that school choice works, sparking the growth of some of the nation’s best public charter school networks. Accountability, too, has supported whole system improvement, with Arizona’s NAEP scores leading the country in closing the achievement gap. 

We’ve improved, but good isn’t good enough. We need a robust combination of choice, high standards and quality curriculum to keep us focused on continuous improvement.

It’s time to inject choice into our accountability system.

Legislation by Rep. Paul Boyer and Sen. Sylvia Allen will do just that by directing the State Board of Education to develop a menu of assessments that school districts and charters could choose from to determine whether students are ready for college.

The AzMERIT assessment is a major upgrade over the old AIMS test. The former Arizona high school exit exam that was aligned with 10th grade standards told parents and school leaders almost nothing about a student’s readiness for college-level work. We’ve corrected that now, however, with the adoption of AzMERIT, which is aligned with Arizona’s more rigorous K-12 standards.

But some schools want to do more and go beyond the state standards. We should let them.

Take what’s offered by Cambridge International Examinations, for example. Cambridge programs of study are in place in 160 countries around the world in 10,000 schools and reach nearly 1,000,000 students. Cambridge University has been around for about 800 years and its testing arm for about 160 years. We’re not talking about a fly-by-night operation. The programs are comprehensive, challenging, and are recognized by the world’s top universities, including all three of Arizona’s public universities. Passing a Cambridge end-of-course examination leaves no doubt that a student is ready for college.

You don’t have to travel to Singapore or China to access Cambridge. It’s accessible in places like Kingman and Yuma, where the Yuma Union High School District’s Ready Now Yuma program supported by the Helios Education Foundation is causing education observers to take notice with its increase in college-going graduates. And because they’ve matriculated through Cambridge, students are emerging from high school with the confidence that they can be successful in college.

The bills by Rep. Boyer and Sen. Allen allow for a pilot program that would examine new assessment options at the grades 3-8 level, too. Cambridge can be found in the early grades at schools like ASU Preparatory Academy, led by the dynamic and talented Beatriz Rendón.

Other options that signal college readiness are the College Board’s Advanced Placement courses or the highly regarded International Baccalaureate program. Colleges and universities view courses like these as a high school’s most rigorous and can lead to earning college credit with a qualifying score on a subject exam.  College-credit-granting exam results can lead to big savings for families’ future tuition costs. The Arizona Chamber strongly supports providing financial bonuses to schools when their students pass the courses’ exams. Credit Gov. Doug Ducey for including money in his budget that can be used for this purpose.

These programs are perfectly aligned with the goals behind Move on When Ready and the Grand Canyon Diploma, which is granted to students who demonstrate mastery in core subject areas, not just seat time. Earning a Grand Canyon Diploma could mean a mature, academically outstanding student could get started on his or her college career sooner than his or her peers. I had the privilege to speak at a Center for Arizona’s Future event commemorating the five-year anniversary of this effort. Kudos to Dr. Sybil Francis and Dr. Lattie Coor for their pioneering work.

We should never dictate top-down curriculum onto schools, but we can incentivize schools to adopt high caliber programs that can go toe-to-toe with any curriculum around the world. Joel Klein, the famed former New York City Schools chancellor credited with turning around the country’s largest school system, acknowledges that he should have been quicker to make adjustments to his schools’ curriculum.

We certainly shouldn’t penalize schools for offering rigorous curriculum. Schools with robust Cambridge, AP and IB offerings have gone beyond what is asked by the state’s K-12 standards and AzMERIT. Yet we’re asking those schools to pivot and prepare for an additional state exam that determines their school letter grade under our school accountability system. Schools that are going the extra mile shouldn’t have to backtrack.

Glenn Hamer is the president and CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce