THE ARIZONA DAILY STAR
University High's showing on writing brings questions
Educators, students and parents at University High
School are challenging the validity of the AIMS test after a
relatively low number of students at the high-performing school
exceeded the state's writing standards.
But State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom
Horne says the discrepancies stem from problems his department is
working to fix by increasing from two to eight the number of people
who grade an individual writing exam.
As part of an informal experiment, the high school
compared AIMS scores from 33 of last year's seniors with scores
those same students received on the SAT, ACT and AP exams. All the
students had already passed the AIMS their sophomore year, had
received a total of $2 million in college scholarships and
voluntarily agreed to take the writing portion again.
The school, which was found in January to be at the
head of its class globally when it comes to testing success in its
Advanced Placement program, says AIMS writing scores were
"demonstrably lower" than student scores on various national
About 30 percent of the students exceeded the state's
standards. Only about 2 percent received the highest score possible
- a 6 - in one of several areas evaluated.
Statewide, only 2 percent of last year's sophomores,
the first class required to pass AIMS in order to receive a diploma,
exceeded the writing exam standards.
A University High site council of about 30 teachers,
students and parents argue that if a majority of students at
University High - a highly competitive college preparatory school in
Tucson Unified School District - are not exceeding the state
standards, then the grading process might be flawed.
"If we're bad at writing, everybody in the state is
bad at writing," said Principal Stuart Baker, who came up with the
idea of comparing student scores. "I want to be clear, the idea of
AIMS has really pushed the state and the school district - as
painful as it is - toward higher standards, but the abstract way
this is being graded needs to be cleared up so there is an even
The AIMS also includes math and language exams, which
were not analyzed in the University High study.
Horne says change is already under way.
Since taking office in 2003, Horne said he's worked
to change the grading process. A new company has been hired to grade
the tests. Previous exams, including those from University High,
were graded by two people. Now, eight will grade individual tests.
Horne said the Board of Education will also look at
the standards needed for a top score.
"I think the point is 'exceeds' doesn't mean it has
to be perfect," Horne said.
Students are assigned one of several categories
depending on their score: exceeds the standards, meets the
standards, approaches the standards or falls far below the
Problems with the grading system are not news to
educators, said Canyon del Oro Principal Michael Gemma. Only 2
percent of his students exceeded the state standards in writing last
For students who didn't, he doesn't have any advice.
The state doesn't send back the tests, so students can't see what
they've done wrong, and the scoring system is not clearly defined,
"We're not sure what the score truly means," Gemma
said. "To be honest, I'm not sure what to tell them."
Baker called for the study after only 6 percent of
University High sophomores exceeded standards on the AIMS writing
test in 2003-04. Meanwhile, the average SAT verbal score trumped the
national average. The average SAT score for University High students
that year exceeded 1300 out of a possible 1600, more than 250 points
higher than the national average.
Not only were the scores lower than expected, but
some student scores dropped from their previous attempt.
Also troubling, Baker says, are individual scores on
the AIMS writing portion, which he says reveal hiccups in the
scoring process. The writing part of the AIMS exam scores students
in six areas: ideas and content, organization, voice, word choice,
sentence fluency and conventions. No senior achieved a margin
greater than one point between any two trait scores, Baker said. And
84 percent of the seniors received identical scores in each of those
University High's goal is not to lead a rebellion
against the AIMS test, a source of controversy among state educators
and politicians, said English Department Chair Kris Tully. Rather,
the site council wants the state to re-evaluate the grading process
and in December wrote a letter to Horne warning him of "potential
legal liability" if changes are not made.
To University High senior Mara Gregory, 18, it's
about more than how the test is graded. Gregory said that compared
with SAT and AP writing exams, the AIMS questions are vague and seem
to prompt an answer.
"The AP was more about comparing and contrasting
different works. The AIMS was just an essay persuading someone to do
something," she said.