Original URL: http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/suncities/articles/0430junioraims0430Z1.html

Different kids, same challenge
AIMS tests hold fates of stateschools
The Arizona Republic
Apr. 30, 2003 12:00 AM
Katy Scott

Jaimee Romero and Matt Woolf stand in the eye of a hurricane.

They've never met, but they sit together - alongside thousands of their peers - as the winds of an educational debate whip against them.

Politicians preach accountability. Principals ask for more time. Teachers decry labels. Superintendents look for specifics. All the while Jaimee and Matt crouch over their desks, No. 2 pencils in hand, and prepare to take a controversial state-mandated test. Their scores will help decide the fates of their respective schools.

Jaimee, a Peoria eighth-grader, will attack the barrage of AIMS (Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards) tests this week. Matt is set to face the math, writing and reading questions in his Litchfield Park middle school next week. They are among the thousands of third-, fifth- and eighth-grade students in Arizona who will take the test this month.

Eighth-graders at Peoria Elementary School live in a world that is still segregated by gender. Recess leads boys to a basketball court and girls to games of double-dutch. A few brave souls dare to intermingle for a few moments.

The skirt and open-toe shoes Jaimee wore to school one day this month weren't enough to keep her from jumping rope. She likes to be in the middle of things. She loves school, in part because of all the socialization. It's impossible for Jaimee to walk from one class to another without being stopped by a friend to chat or say hello.

Between her time in classes and in extracurricular pursuits like newspaper, student council, volleyball, softball and the National Junior Honor Society, she seems to know every student.

"I just like being involved," she said. "I like knowing that I'm making a difference in what's going on in school."

She also likes being a good student. Grades are important for her, both because of the positive feedback she gets from teachers and family, and because they allow her to be involved in things like student council and the honor society.

But Jaimee doesn't stand out in her classes. She works hard, but like everyone else has been known to get an answer wrong once in a while. She likes most of her classes, especially language arts, but lately, they've been a little more boring.

Improvement a must

Peoria Elementary was the only school in its district to be labeled "underperforming," based in large part on students' performance on the AIMS tests. If the school doesn't show improvement, it could face dire consequences, which include a possible state takeover. Changes had to be made fast.

"We're looking for some quick fixes this year, just to get some gains," Principal Fritz Maynes said.

He said he wishes the school could have more time, but the strict deadlines of No Child Left Behind, the federal mandate that makes schools accountable for every student's progress, are looming. Accountability is important, Maynes said, but any significant strategy change is going to take a few years to really make a difference.

Until then, students are scrambling to get ready. AIMS preparation booklets arrived in January, so math and language arts classes since then have focused around them.

"Yeah, they're boring," Jaimee said. "But they're helping us out."

A big part of the school's new plan is to make sure students understand the importance of the tests. Teachers frequently invoke the test:

"They're going to ask you those type of questions on the AIMS."

"They're going to try to throw you off here."

"They're going to be looking for that when they grade it."

AIMS is annoying

Fifteen miles away, Matt Woolf slouches over his desk, an overgrown flop of hair blocking his eyes.

Matt's an honor student, but he says his grades don't really matter to him. He's always been good at school, but it just isn't his thing. He'd rather be playing guitar, skateboarding or finding a drummer for his band.

"I just get really bored with it," he said. "I can do my work, and I understand how to do it, and I can turn my work in - that's all a grade is."

Still, Western Sky Middle School isn't a bad place to waste your days. Hallway skylights and tiny classroom windows give the large, modern campus an upbeat feel. Within each carpeted classroom are matching desks, and air-conditioning keeps the school fresh and chilly.

Only 15 percent of the kids here get free or reduced-price lunches, and less than 5 percent are English language learners. Many students live in neighborhoods like Matt's, a gated, guarded community in Litchfield Park.

AIMS doesn't dominate much class time here, though Matt and his classmates do sometimes work out of state-provided study guides. Principal Heather Cruz said work with those books began this month.

But the specter of the test isn't absent from Matt's classes. What "they" will want on the test is discussed, especially in math and language arts, as are a few test-taking strategies like the process of elimination.

"We were much less focused on the Stanford 9," Matt said.

He's still not sure about the point of the AIMS. Stanford 9 he can understand - it helps his teachers teach. But why this other, easier yet more labor-intensive test?

"You can be the best student and still fail because you have to do all your work in the back, and flip to another page to write your answer," Matt said. "It's complicated, but not hard."

It doesn't have a point now, though it will soon. By the time Matt is ready to graduate from high school, the state will require him to pass AIMS before he gets his diploma. There's little doubt Matt - who says AIMS is twice as easy as Stanford 9 - will pass, but it's still annoying.

"AIMS doesn't really matter in eighth grade," he said. "It shouldn't matter in high school, either."

'Fight-back attitude'

Jaimee spends the last 45 minutes of each school day reading to herself or listening to her teacher, Karen Runke, read aloud. It's a new requirement this year, Runke said, because students weren't scoring well on the reading portion of AIMS. After Runke finishes a chapter, she has her students take out sheets of paper and asks them questions about the story.

Two students in the back of the class look at each other, confused. They are English language learners who spend two hours each day in special classes, but it doesn't seem to help in this situation. A bilingual student nearby whispers the questions in Spanish to the others, who write what they can in English.

"They're going to sit here and take the test, and their scores are going to be counted," Runke said.

She said the AIMS tests don't take that into account.

"They don't know what these kids have to go home to," Runke said. "It's easier to teach kids who have two parents at home, who don't have to worry about whether they're going to get breakfast or whether their mom's going to go to jail."

Jaimee's home life is less complicated. She lives with both her maternal grandparents in a modest house within walking distance of Peoria Elementary. Nancy and Joe Romero have helped raised Jaimee since their then-teenage daughter, who is still close to Jaimee, gave birth 14 years ago.

The Romeros have been in the district for 25 years. Their children went to school there, and Joe has worked in the maintenance department for two decades.

"Some things just don't show up on a test score," Nancy said. "Her school is rich in tradition and family values. Kids who went there come back to teach there. . . . She's flourishing."

Runke has taught the children of college professors, lawyers and doctors in wealthier Flagstaff and northern Phoenix districts, but she said she loves Peoria.

"We have the best kids here," she said. "They're intelligent. They've been through a lot in their lives, but they're hard workers. They're going places."

She said she understands the need to test kids and the need for accountability, but she doesn't see the need for labels.

"There's no way you should label a student at Peoria Elementary next to someone at (a wealthier school)," Runke said. "Kids here are looking at scholarships or trade schools. You have kids at the other wealthier schools where their whole focus is college."

Like many educators, Maynes has problems with his school's label - he didn't know how the label would be decided until it was done; there's little time to make the drastic corrections necessary; and the label was based largely on the AIMS test, rather than the Stanford 9. But he's not dwelling on that. He's looking at the future.

"This label kind of opened up a lot of people's eyes," Maynes said. "We are good, but let's get better."

Besides, he said, there's nowhere the label can go but up.

That's how many of the eighth-graders are looking at it.

"They were hurt, the kids' feelings were hurt," Runke said. "They don't like to be labeled. But they've got this fight-back attitude."

That's evident in Jaimee. She has only one thing to say about AIMS.

"Everybody's trying their best," she said. "We're going to prove them wrong."

Politics involved?

Matt's parents love Western Sky Middle School. And they're well-informed about what's going on at the school. Leyton Woolf, Matt's dad, was on the school board for eight years, and spent seven of those years as its president.

"I don't have anything bad to say," said Maria Woolf, Matt's mom.

The school earned the state's second-highest label, "improving," based largely on its high AIMS scores. The atmosphere there is fairly calm regarding the upcoming tests, but administrators aren't without their complaints.

"The 'improving' tends to have a connotation that you've had low scores in the past," Cruz said. "It's misleading to parents."

Litchfield Superintendent Tom Heck said one of the main criticisms of the tests has been its implementation. Some educators feel the tests just sprang up from nowhere.

"Accountability is fine, but let's start in third grade and move our way up," he said. "If you haven't had the test over the years, you're failing the kids by no fault of their own."

Leyton Woolf blames politics for the tests. He, too, has a host of problems with them. AIMS doesn't measure teacher proficiency, he said, as well as tests like Stanford 9. That series of exams has been tweaked over decades, but AIMS is fairly new, which is a major
problem, Cruz said.

Math scores, for example, have been remarkably low across the state. She said the test needs some serious refining, specifically in that area, if it can accurately test what it's supposed to test.

Leyton said he has seen math problems on the AIMS test that he couldn't solve, and he's worried that the Class of 2006 will have to pass it to graduate.

"There should be some type of test to show that a child or individual has learned enough to get out of high school," he said. "Do I think the AIMS test is appropriate for that? No, I don't."

The state should test kids on basic life skills, he contends, like an ability to read the newspaper, balance a checkbook and understand major historic events.

Matt had a similar sentiment.

"AIMS is lame," he said.

Reach the reporter at katy.scott@arizonarepublic.com or (602) 444-6928.