Original URL: http://www.azstarnet.com/star/Wed/30903AIMS.html

State talks tweak for AIMS test
Flaws in its design faulted for low eighth-grade scores
Sept 3, 2003
By Sarah Garrecht Gassen and Jennifer Sterba

State education officials will change AIMS tests after most eighth-graders here and across the state again failed the math and writing portions.

About eight out of 10 eighth-graders failed the state math test they took this spring, and just over half failed the writing test, results released Tuesday show. Eighth-graders did better on the reading portion, with slightly more than half passing.

But flaws in the design of the test caused "misleadingly low" scores in the eighth grade, according to Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne, who is in his first year in office.

The AIMS test is intended to find out whether students know what the state says they should in math, writing and reading, in grades three, five, eight and 10.

The results are used by the state and federal governments in labeling schools' performance levels and marking "underperforming" schools for possible state intervention, which will happen in October.

Beginning with this year's high school sophomore class, students must pass the AIMS test in order to graduate. Horne said he has eliminated an alternative offered by his predecessor, which would have allowed students who failed AIMS to instead complete a special project to earn a diploma.

Students who took the test last spring as 10th-graders knew the test would not affect their graduation. High school juniors and seniors can retake the 10th-grade test if they haven't passed.

AIMS, which stands for Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards, was first given in 1999. Portions of the test have been changed before, after many students failed.

Horne said the next changes will not dumb down the test but will make questions more "reasonable" and "straightforward" and will more closely match academic standards for eighth grade and high school.

All AIMS tests will be tweaked, he said, especially the eighth-grade version.

"The eighth-grade test is not matching the academic standards as well as you would like it to," Horne said. "It's at a very high level of difficulty - some of the questions are asking for more steps than the kids really needed to know."

For example, a question might ask a student to calculate the perimeter of a rectangle. "You can ask it in a straightforward way or in a way with more
complicated arithmetic that has traps in it, like fractions," he said.

Math skills, such as fractions, are tested in other questions on the test, Horne said.

The eighth-grade math test was also graded more harshly because the committee of teachers determining the passing grade set higher expectations than in other grades, Horne said. For example, eighth-graders had to get 78 percent of the questions right in order to pass, while 68 percent was a passing score in other  grades, he said.

"I think that probably will change," Horne said.

A group of Arizona public school teachers will gather to write new questions for half of the AIMS tests students will take next spring, and the entire test will be rewritten by the 2004-05 school year, Horne said.

Questions on the tests students have taken for the past several years were written by a national testing company and were based on Arizona academic standards.

Last year's overall eighth-grade passing and failing results were almost identical to this year's.

Flowing Wells High School freshman Tommy Kidd isn't worried about having to pass the test to graduate and agrees that the eighth-grade test should be
overhauled. "They should change it a little bit - I'd make the questions not so obvious in math," he said.

His father, Eric Kidd, said he thinks his son and daughter will do fine, but the state should use AIMS to detect problems in school and offer help.
"Actually keeping students from graduating is a little ridiculous," he said.

Utterback Middle Magnet School Principal Debbie Summers said her math teachers say the AIMS test does not match what the state tells teachers to teach by grade level.

"It's real important the test measures those things and not put in the 'gotchas,' " said Summers, whose school is in Tucson Unified School District, the city's largest.

Marana Unified School District saw drops in reading, writing and math for eighth-graders at both its middle schools.

Of Marana's Tortolita Middle School eighth-graders, 26 percent passed math, 10 percent fewer than passed in 2002.

However, "eighth grade is not a predictor of how they will do in 10th grade," said district Assistant Superintendent Ron Rickel.

"When they know it counts, I think they will put a sincere effort into doing well on the test."

Catalina Foothills Unified School District again saw more than 80 percent of its students pass the AIMS reading test at the eighth-grade level.

But since most districts didn't do that well, Foothills' Associate Superintendent Terry Downey joins others in questioning the appropriateness of the current test.

"Either we're ineffective teachers or this isn't a particularly good test," she said. "I think we're actually better at teaching than that."

Sunnyside Unified School District's AIMS scores were up across the board, but district officials said they still have concerns about the impending second round of state labels that will identify which schools are failing to teach state standards.

Five Sunnyside schools were labeled underperforming last year. Those schools have until fall 2004 to improve their test scores and attendance in order to avoid state intervention.

Apollo Middle School led the district in eighth-grade improvements.

The percentage of Apollo Middle School eighth-graders passing the AIMS math test jumped from just 2 percent in 2002 to 14 percent this spring.

Reading-proficient eighth-graders jumped from 33 percent to 43 percent.

Apollo math teacher David Shanler said students have ample time to learn what they need to know for the test - but he added he's not a fan of AIMS.

"It's a high-stakes test," he said. "I'd hate to see a kid pass or fail on the results of one test."

* Star reporter Colleen Sparks contributed to this story.

* Contact reporter Sarah Garrecht Gassen at 573-4117 or sgassen@azstarnet.com.