Catalina Foothills School District surpassed all other districts in the county in their AzMerit scores, released earlier this month by the Arizona Department of Education.
Everything the district does can be related to both AzMerit scores and "authentic real-world scenarios," said Assistant Superintendent Mary Jo Conery. CFSD educators work with students from first grade on, using evidence-based techniques to educate and prepare them.
"Instead of saying we're just focused on good test scores, we focus on learning opportunities that go beyond any individual test," Conery said. "The ultimate test for us is what they can do with that content."
The AzMerit is Arizona's standardized test, starting at third grade. The state average is a 32.7 percent passing rate for English Language Arts and 32.5 percent for math. Pima County as a whole beats that average at 38 percent in ELA and 37 percent in math.
Sixty-eight percent of CFSD students passed the ELA test and the math test, according to Arizona Department of Education data.
In Tucson Unified School District, the county's largest district with over 47,600 students, only 29 percent passed the ELA test and 28 percent passed math.
Of Pima County districts with more than 1,000 students, the only one with poorer scores than TUSD was Sunnyside Unified School District with 23 percent passing ELA and 27 percent passing math.
How to raise TUSD scores is the "million dollar question," said TUSD Governing Board Member Mark Stegeman. He said there's no single answer but it would be a combination of focusing on student achievement, recruiting and training teachers, fixing gaps in the curriculum and making sure there are enough copies of textbooks at the start of the school year.
He thinks the biggest area they need to focus on is "catching kids up and keeping them on track" at the elementary school level.
"I think it really is a battle that, to a considerable extent, you win or lose in the elementary grades," he said, adding that the scope of the test are "narrow but meaningful."
Board Member Kristel Foster, who's not a fan of standardized testing, said she takes the scores with a grain of salt. She's more interested in how individual students and schools are growing one year to the next, especially given economic disadvantages that vary among different schools and districts.
"Let's look at how each individual site has improved," she said. "We're not going to help by beating up the district as a whole for not performing as good as the Foothills because that's never happened, and it doesn't help anybody."
The Arizona State Board of Education voted to replace the state's old standardized test, Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards, or AIMS, with AzMERIT in November 2014.
The difference between AzMerit and AIMS is that AzMerit is "a lot more elaborate and difficult," so the percentage of students that pass is low because there's an adjustment period for students and educators, said Arizona Department of Education Public Information Officer Stefan Swiat.
State Superintendent Diane Douglas thinks there's too much weight placed on the standardized testing, which are often not counted toward student grades, said Swiat.
Runner up to CFSD was Vail Unified School District, followed by Tanque Verde Unified School District, Sahuarita Unified School District and Amphitheater Unified School District.
Amphi had 41 percent passing ELA and 39 percent passing math. After that came Marana Unified School District with 37 percent passing ELA and 36 percent passing math, and Flowing Wells Unified District with 33 percent passing ELA and 36 percent passing math.
CFSD accredits its high scores to a rigorous curriculum and strategic plan that considers how the test scores relate to student achievement and understanding, said Conery.
The district spent over two years working closely with teachers to develop and implement a "curriculum framework" that gets passed on to new teachers. They also use "performance tasks," where they assess student work and adjust for improvement.
She noted that the district hires certified teachers and puts them through a three-year induction program where they mentor under seasoned district educators.
"The idea is to continue training our teachers to be leaders in this work," she said.
CFSD also uses a test called College Work Readiness Assessment, given to freshman and juniors, to indicate how ready they are for higher education. The assessment includes real-world problem solving and critical thinking, and Conery said the students' scores get better every year.
"Can you take what you're learning and apply it to a whole new situation?" she said. "That's important to us, and it's a part of our philosophy."