Little change in AIMS scores
Arizona Republic
Jul. 18, 2007

State finally can compare 3 years of similar data
Pat Kossan and Matt Dempsey

Arizona students are making small gains in learning in some grades but are flatlining in others, particularly in late middle school and early high school, new test scores indicate.

The slight gains on the statewide AIMS test mostly came this year compared with 2006, as the share of students passing math and reading rose by a few percentage points in many grades. But the gains have been less pronounced since 2005.

Scores for many English-learners have fallen.

For the first time, the AIMS test and passing score have not changed in three years. That gives educators a more reliable way to compare student achievement over time.

The message being sent by results is that progress is slow, and many students are stagnating. The flat scores over three years in eighth and 10th grades worry educators because kids need to ramp up their academic skills as the curriculum in high school gets tougher.

"Right now, we're getting mixed messages," said Joe O'Reilly of the Mesa Unified District, the largest in the state. "Some are up, some are down."

The goal is to forge a steady rise of 1 or 2 percentage points at each grade level from now on, though gaining each point will get tougher and tougher.

Educators and policymakers say it will take new investments in technology and teacher training, help from parents, and help for struggling families so each child can work at peak levels.

"Certainly those involved in education have realized there is no magic bullet," said Susan Carlson of the Arizona Business and Education Coalition.
"You just can't keep pushing and pushing and think all of a sudden there's going to be a transformational change in test scores. It takes hard work."

State schools chief Tom Horne said he is pleased with the small gains students made in reading, writing and math.

"A move of 1 or 2 percent is a significant gain when testing 600,000 students," he said.

Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards is eight years old. Now that a uniform test is in place, it will be used in a more customized way to drive improvement at school, teacher and student levels, officials say. The tests enable the state to separate the best schools from the worst and send in teams to help schools falling behind. It also gives the state the power to replace principals at schools not making progress.

Paul Koehler, a director for WestEd, a public policy and research group, said low-performing schools are taking AIMS results seriously. They are pulling apart the testing data and following each student's progress over the past three years.

"We're going to teach and test, and if the kids don't know it, we're going to reteach," Koehler said. "That's what I see is really positive.

"The change isn't going to happen statewide. It's going to happen school by school."

The tools to get ahead are more readily available to some districts than others.

Many large districts have the expertise and technology to help their teachers parse the test data and determine what each student knows and needs to learn.

That was Roger Freeman's job when he was director of testing and technology for the Paradise Valley Unified Schools District. Now, he is superintendent of the small West Valley Littleton Elementary District and has found himself stepping back in time. In Paradise Valley, it took a few keystrokes to separate and compare student data over years and send it to appropriate teachers.

Now, he is watching his staff members enter the data by hand.

"We don't have staff to do a lot of reports and don't have broadly trained teachers in technology applications," Freeman said. "There's a ton of data available to people, but being able to ask questions of the data and to get answers that are usable is a whole different thing."

The other drag on moving test scores ahead is finding a successful way to help language learners grasp English and maintain grade-level work.
Politicians and schools have been arguing for years over the best way to teach these children, and the children have fallen years behind their peers.

"For us to bicker over the needs of English-language learners doesn't help the kids," Carlson said. "I do understand the struggle and frustration to do it right and do it quickly."

This school year is the first time the state will require schools to establish a uniform, four-hour program of English grammar, phonetics, reading and writing for every learner.

"It's pretty dramatic, but these AIMS tests are given in English," Koehler said. "So I think the kids need the help."