Characteristics of Arizona School Districts in Improvement

Primary Researchers: Eric Crane, Kevin (Chun-Wei) Huang, Kenwyn Derby, Reino Makkonen, Aditi Goel

Publication Date: July 2008

This descriptive analysis provides a statistical profile of Arizona's school districts that were in improvement in 2006/07 under No Child Left Behind (NCLB). As Arizona continues to develop and refine its district intervention strategies, this profile can inform the critical work on districts in improvement.

To download a 2-page summary click here.

Research Questions

The study was begun with two guiding sets of questions. The first set concerned the characteristics of districts in improvement:

  • What is the distribution of districts in improvement by district size and density, improvement status, and overall achievement levels?
  • What are the demographic features of the student populations in districts in improvement?
  • What type and amount of staff support is available in districts in improvement? How are financial resources spent in these districts?

The second set of questions looked within districts and was concerned with divergences between the school- and district-level accountability systems:

  • What percentage of students in districts in improvement are enrolled in schools in improvement? What percentage of students in districts in improvement are enrolled in schools that have been in improvement for more than five years (and are therefore now in corrective action)?
  • How common is it for a district to have an accountability status that differs from the schools in the district?
  • What accountability provisions are related to inconsistencies between the reasons for 2005/06 adequate yearly progress classifications of districts and of schools in those districts?


To generate a statistical profile of Arizona's districts in improvement, REL West researchers acquired online demographic, assessment, and accountability data from the Arizona Department of Education School Effectiveness Division. Data were provided in spring and summer 2007. Financial and staffing data and information about the rural-urban characteristics of districts were downloaded from the federal Common Core of Data maintained by the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (2007).

The research team then merged datasets to link key variables, and investigated district and school characteristics using descriptive statistics, including frequency distributions, cross-tabulations, measures of central tendency (the median), and measures of variability (e.g., interquartile range).

Key Findings

Data analysis for this study revealed that the district level of Arizona's NCLB-driven accountability system was identifying problems that are missed at the school level.

In Arizona, making adequate yearly progress requires satisfying up to 37 requirements. An examination of how Arizona's 218 multiple-school districts and more than 1,500 schools did on these individual adequate yearly progress requirements revealed that in 2005/06 — the year on which the 2006/07 district in improvement designations were based — 66 districts (39 of them in improvement) failed to make adequate yearly progress on at least one requirement, even though all their schools made adequate yearly progress on that same requirement. In addition, 7 districts failed to make adequate yearly progress in the aggregate, even though not one school in those districts failed to do so.

Overall, 77 (35 percent) of the 218 multiple-school districts included in the district accountability system were in improvement in 2006/07, and districts in improvement enrolled more than 610,000 (60 percent) of the 1.01 million public school students in the state. But 24 of the 77 districts in improvement had no schools identified for improvement. In these cases, districts were being held accountable for student subgroups whose performance was not tracked by school-level accountability rules because there were too few students in the subgroup at each school to meet the minimum subgroup size (40 or more) in Arizona for reporting under the NCLB Act. This occurred most often for the students with disabilities subgroup. While such differences may appear counterintuitive at first, they reflect the effectiveness of a two-level accountability system — with the district-level system picking up, monitoring, and being accountable for students missed by the school-level system.

Compared with other districts, Arizona districts in improvement:

  • tended to be larger than other districts, with more schools and more students — 13 of the 17 largest districts were in improvement in 2006/07;
  • were more likely to be located in cities or urban fringe areas (as opposed to towns or rural areas); and
  • had higher proportions of Hispanic, American Indian, English language learner, and socioeconomically disadvantaged students and lower proportions of White students.

In addition, districts in improvement were held accountable more often for the test performance of the following student subgroups that met the minimum threshold size of 40: African American students, Hispanic students, American Indian students, English language learner students, and students with disabilities. When held accountable, less than half of districts in improvement met the proficiency targets for these subgroups.

Since statewide proficiency targets are set to increase regularly in the years ahead, it is likely that districts already in improvement will have a difficult time climbing out. In fact, none of Arizona's 77 districts in improvement met all adequate yearly progress criteria in 2005/06. Furthermore, districts not identified for improvement will need to increase the percentage of students scoring proficient in order to continue making adequate yearly progress.

Implications for Research and Practice

More than 60 percent of Arizona's Title I multiple-school districts (134 of 218) did not make adequate yearly progress in 2005/06, and none of the state’s districts in improvement did so. With statewide annual measurable objective proficiency targets due to increase several times before 2013/14, it is likely to become increasingly difficult for districts to meet adequate yearly progress. Arizona's districts in improvement face particularly tough challenges. Compared with districts not identified for improvement, they are accountable for more subgroups, including more subgroups of English language learner students and students with disabilities, and they do not meet proficiency targets for these subgroups as often. Because of the many adequate yearly progress discrepancies between districts and their schools related to students with disabilities, the state might consider focusing its district-level interventions on coordinating special education services across schools.

Additional study of the differences between student populations in districts in improvement and other districts, especially within the same subgroup designation, could shed more light on the differences in academic performance across school districts. The use of new primary data (perhaps collected through surveys or targeted interviews) could offer more nuanced insights on certain key issues, including whether and how the education needs of students in districts in improvement and other districts differ from each other.

A future study could also explore differences in support for these subgroups, including whether districts not identified for improvement are employing useful education strategies or offering more specialized supports that might be transferable to districts in improvement. Differences in the education needs of students in different types of districts could also be studied to see whether these subgroups face additional challenges in districts in improvement.

The discovery that 23 districts declined Title I funds in 2005/06, after having received them in previous years, could be interesting to examine, particularly if these decisions were attempts to avoid Title I accountability.

Furthermore, as accountability rules and intervention approaches will be shaped by reauthorization of the NCLB Act, an update of this study once these areas are defined in reauthorization would be useful.

Study Limitations

The aim of this study was to document basic descriptive information about Arizona districts in improvement and compare them with other districts. As a result, the study relied on publicly available demographic, assessment, accountability, financial, and staffing data. Although this report documents the performance differences for certain subgroups that relate to — and in some cases drive — improvement status, the reasons for the performance differences cannot be determined with the data available to this study. Students may differ in important ways in districts in improvement and in districts not identified for improvement, including initial achievement before entering the district and access to resources outside of school that support learning and achievement. Thus, the reasons for the observed differences in performance cannot be identified in this study.

  • Published: July 2008
  • Research Type: Issues & Answers
  • Methodologies: Descriptive
  • Contact info:
    Eric Crane 916.492.4080

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