Tutoring for AIMS touted as a success
August 17, 2005
Schools chief points to scores; critic says results are skewed
By Daniel Scarpinato
A multimillion-dollar taxpayer-funded AIMS tutoring effort is paying off, the state's education superintendent says. And millions more are on the way to continue boosting scores on the state's high school exit exam.
Of the 6,000 students statewide who enrolled in state-funded tutoring programs last year, 91 percent improved their scores in at least one subject area, state officials announced Tuesday in a press release from the office of Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne.
But that's misleading, argues Bob Springer, who runs a local all-volunteer tutoring program hailed by Horne in his January State of Education address.
Springer, a retired engineer who manages a program of 120 volunteers who tutor 600 students in the Amphitheater and San Manuel school districts, says his own analysis of scores found a controversial change in the score required to pass the 2005 AIMS test has had a "profound" effect on results, eroding the impact of the exam.
In May, the pass threshold for the math portion of the test was changed from 71 percent to 60 percent. On the reading portion, the threshold was dropped from 72 percent to 59 percent. What followed were significant gains on the test statewide.
Looking at math scores at Ironwood Ridge and San Manuel high schools, Springer, who holds a doctorate in experimental psychology, found that at least 20 percent of students who failed the test last fall would have passed under the new criteria. Similarly, he looked at this year's scores and found that 20 percent of students who passed wouldn't have done so if the old criteria had been maintained.
He charted the findings and compared them with the improvements recorded in the state's 12 largest school districts. The findings match almost identically. He also found the number of students passing AIMS this year in low-performing schools typically increased by about 40 percent. In the higher-performing schools, it was about 20 percent.
Horne disputes Springer's findings.
"I'm absolutely certain he's incorrect," he said of Springer's data, quoting research done by CTB/McGraw Hill, the company paid to grade the test.
Horne maintains the change in passing scores, which he voted against when it came before the Board of Education, affected only the scores of about 2,500 students in the Class of 2006, the first required to pass the test. Rather, the tutoring inflated the results for more Arizona students, he said.
"The tutoring results are spectacular," Horne said. "The disappointing part is more students didn't (enroll)."
Horne said he opposed the change in passing scores because it would overshadow increases in student achievement. Educators and politicians argued that the passing scores had to be changed because the test questions were rewritten. When scores were released by the state last month, Horne and others said they couldn't be compare against last year's.
But in Tuesday's announcement, scores are compared, crediting the tutoring programs for helping the vast majority of the students enrolled. The programs are run by local school districts, with money distributed by the state.
Originally, lawmakers intended to help more than 30,000 students with $10 million set aside for the tutoring programs. But most of the money had to be returned because so few students signed up.
Bolstered by this latest state report that says students benefited from the tutoring, two sets of funding, totaling about $12 million, have been allocated for tutoring through a combination of voter-approved funds and money approved by the Legislature.
Monica Stanek, mother of a Canyon del Oro High School student, said the low tutoring turnout may have be due to a lack of knowledge as students and parents tried to keep up with changes in the test.
"I keep hearing different things, and it's hard to keep up with what's expected of her," she said of her daughter, Brittany. The CDO senior is hoping to either pass the math section this fall or have enough credits to graduate early and avoid the requirement. "Everyone is full of ifs," she said.
Horne said more students should be interested now that the test appears to be here to stay and the deadline for passing to graduate is clear.
But Springer said the change in passing scores, which was not taken into account in the state's study, can't be ignored. And damage already has been done, he said.
"They're dumbing down the path," he said. "I'm not completely against that; I think the test was too hard." But now the pressure is off, he said.
"I would like to see the state work back about 1 or 2 percentage points a year," he said.
● Contact reporter Daniel Scarpinato at 573-4195 or at dscarpinato@azstarnet.com.