Black students in Arizona rank near top for academic gains

Black students in Arizona rank near the top in the nation for posting academic gains year after year, and those who attend charter schools may appear to have a competitive edge, according to an analysis by the nonprofit Arizona Center for Student Opportunity. 

“There’s actually good news about the education of African American students here in Arizona that is underrecognized,” said Matthew Ladner, director of the center that was launched earlier this year by the nonprofit Arizona Charter Schools Association to continue to improve academic achievement and opportunity at charter schools in the state. 

But whether parents choose a district, charter or online school for their children, one thing is clear: Arizona is doing something right, Ladner said. 

All students have bested nation

In fact, students of all colors in Arizona have outperformed the nation consistently for academic gains over the past decade, with Black students showing some of the biggest gains, he said.  

That doesn’t mean challenges don’t remain. There’s still an achievement gap with Blacks lagging behind their White peers.

“It’s not to say the problem is solved, but we’ve made a lot of progress in Arizona compared to other places,” he said. “In other states, you see the exact opposite — where things aren’t only bad, they’re getting worse.”

Don’t-fence-me-in policy works 

Ladner believes Arizona’s “don’t fence me in” policies are making the difference. Unlike most states, students in Arizona can attend schools outside their assigned school district boundaries. 

Arizona was one of the first states to offer open enrollment in 1994. Today, it’s widely used by parents statewide. For example, 4,000 of Scottsdale Unified School District’s 22,000 students last year were from out of the district’s geographic boundaries, Ladner said.  

Arizona also has more charter schools per capita than most states. Today, charter school students make up nearly 20 percent of the public school population in the state with 213,000 students and 573 schools.

These policies have made schools more competitive and are benefiting students, particularly low-income Black and Latino students, Ladner said.  

How Arizona stacks up 

To measure how Black students in Arizona are stacking up against the rest of the country, Ladner analyzed standardized test and other data over the past decade from the Arizona Department of Education, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, and the Nation’s Report Card.

Among his findings:

-Over the last decade, Arizona stands as one of the few states demonstrating academic gains year after year among all students, including low-income Black students.

-In 2019, Black students ranked fourth in the nation for academic gains in eighth-grade math, compared to their peers in other states, according to NCES’ National Assessment of Educational Progress. 

– Maricopa County has one of the highest rates for academic gains for Black students in the country among large urban areas. Last year, the rate of growth was 13 percent above the national average in 2019, according to the Stanford Opportunity Project.

-Black charter school students in Arizona have seen higher academic gains than the state average in math and English Language Arts on the AzMERIT test since it was implemented in 2015. They also performed better than their district school counterparts. 

Arizona is national model 

It’s clear that Black families in Arizona are benefiting from the wide range of educational options in the state, Ladner said. While more needs to be done to narrow the achievement gap for students of color, Arizona is making ground. 

“This process of allowing people freedom for flexibility, to seek out the best school to meet their needs is helping everyone academically including black students.”

For more information about the association and charter schools in Arizona, visit

Victoria Harker

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