Hold cheers for gains on AIMS test
Oct. 31, 2005
Fact or fiction: The educational performance of Arizona students is improving.
To judge from the proverbial champagne corks popping in public schools around
the state as a result of rising scores on the Arizona's Instrument to Measure
Standards test, one would conclude that schools are doing better at the job of
Not so fast. The AIMS results are contradicted by the recent National Assessment
of Educational Progress results, which show that Arizona test scores have
The NAEP tests suggest that the fears of those who support greater educational
accountability are correct: Rising scores on state tests are not the result of
improved student performance, but of watering down the state tests to
manufacture better results.
The NAEP test is a consistent benchmark that measures proficiency in reading and
mathematics. The overall national 2005 NAEP scores in reading are
sobering: 38 percent of all American fourth-graders scored below the most basic
level, along with 29 percent of eighth-graders.
Almost 20 states have reported gains in eighth-grade reading proficiency over
the past two years on their own tests, but analysis of NAEP results by the
Thomas B. Fordham Foundation indicates those gains are largely illusory.
Arizona was labeled one of six "worst offenders" because their NAEP scores
actually decreased while state test scores showed improvement.
For Arizona fourth-graders, the percentage scoring below basic proficiency in
reading on NAEP increased from 46 percent in 2003 to 48 percent this year
- a full 10 percentage points worse than the dismal national results.
At the eighth-grade level, 34 percent of Arizona schoolchildren were below basic
this year, compared with 32 percent in 2003.
Test scores for minorities are worse. By this year, Black and Hispanic
fourth-graders scored 31 points below White students in reading - a gap that has
grown by nearly 50 percent since 1992.
By contrast, Florida schoolchildren boosted performance on both state tests and
NAEP. The percentage of Florida fourth-graders below the basic reading
proficiency level decreased from 37 percent in 2003 to 35 percent today.
Not coincidentally, Florida in 1999 adopted the nation's most comprehensive
K-12 education reform. When a public school fails, the state intervenes with a
remedial program, and the students are given the chance to transfer to any
better-performing public school or private school, at state expense. Since the
program was adopted, Florida actually has strengthened accountability measures,
while Arizona has diluted its standards.
The results have been dramatic for the groups most in need of help. The academic
gap between minority and White students as evidenced by NAEP results has closed
considerably. Likewise, test scores for children eligible for free and
reduced-cost lunch programs have improved relative to wealthier students.
Increased choice and competition in education improve educational performance.
Arizona should adopt school-choice legislation that allows children at greatest
educational risk - low-income children, students in poor-performing schools,
children with disabilities, and children for whom English is a second language -
to choose private as well as public schools.
In the meantime, our public officials need to stop the charade. Imagine a doctor
telling a patient whose condition is worsening, "All better now!" A false
favorable prognosis is much worse than a true unfavorable one, particularly when
a cure is within our grasp.
Arizona needs to make more educational options available to children who need
them most. Such a step would ensure that when we think we're moving in a forward
direction, we really are moving closer to our destination.
The writer is president and general counsel of the Alliance for School Choice, a
Phoenix-based non-profit educational policy group advocating school-choice
programs across the country (www.allianceforschoolchoice.org).