Original URL: http://www.azstarnet.com/star/Fri/30905NEWROSSFOLO.html

Arizona teachers writing a new AIMS test
Plan is to gear it more to what students learn
Sept 5, 2003
By Sarah Garrecht Gassen and Jennifer Sterba

AIMS test questions written by Arizona teachers will be better geared to what students actually learn in class, local supporters say, but the change to a home-grown test is also designed to save money.

About 500 Arizona teachers from 60 school districts - including some from the Tucson area - met over the summer at a Phoenix resort to write questions for the standardized math, writing and reading tests the state uses.

Next year, half of the questions students answer on the AIMS tests will have been written by Arizona teachers and the entire test will be teacher-written by the 2005-06 school year, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne said this week.

Testing company McGraw-Hill previously wrote the questions, which a majority of Arizona eighth-graders couldn't answer correctly this year in math and writing.

Students, parents and educators seem supportive of the change.

Palo Verde Magnet High School student Kira Thomas, 14, said a test written by teachers will more accurately find out if students are absorbing what they're taught in class.

"If you live in Arizona, you have a better idea of what we're learning and how we learn it," she said.

Thomas added she doesn't want the test to be too easy. "I want to be challenged so that in the real world it will be natural for me to get through problems," she said.

Horne said the Arizona test will not be easier, but students will be more familiar with the subject matter.

"The questions on the test now were developed by a California company," Horne said. "We think students will do better with questions written by Arizona teachers."

The test students in grades three, five, eight and 10 have been taking for the past several years consists of questions that are written by and essentially rented from the testing company.

They are based on what the Arizona Board of Education says students should know at each level - what educators call academic standards - but teachers and students have complained that the test and the standards don't match.

The new test questions will also include more "reasonable" math questions that will reflect everyday math instead of higher-level math that college-bound students must know, Horne said.

For example, Arizona teachers suggested to the state, and consequently the private company that wrote the AIMS questions, that students should be able to draw information from a matrix. They meant students should be able to glean the number of home-runs in a baseball game or the highest temperature for the month of August, said Linda Coe, math department chair for Sunnyside High School.

Instead, the company sent back test questions asking students to multiply matrices - a calculus-level skill.

"All they saw from the recommendation was the word matrix and they went from there," Coe said. "We have to look at what this test is for."

Beginning in 2004-05 all students in grades three-eight - not just those in three, five and eight - must take AIMS. Beginning with this year's sophomore class, students must pass the high-school-level test to graduate.

The Arizona Department of Education has been preparing to change over the test to teacher-written questions for two years, Horne said. By 2004-05 the state will have two versions of the three-eight tests and four of the high school test.

Since 2001, large groups of teachers have met over the summer to first hash out grade-specific academic standards and then to write test questions. Teachers are hired by testing company Harcourt, put up at a Phoenix hotel with meals and paid $100 per day for their work, Horne said.

The process costs about $250,000 annually and is paid by Harcourt, which now handles the job instead of McGraw-Hill. Arizona pays the testing company $6.5 million each year to develop, administer and grade the AIMS test.

Once the new AIMS tests are ready, Arizona will own the questions and the process will be cheaper in the long run than buying or continuing to rent a test from a testing company, Horne said. The state will still have to hire an outside company to administer and grade the tests, he said.

Horne said he is hoping to make the high-stakes test more palatable to teachers and parents. "Part of the idea is to get buy-in from the education community," he said.

Eric Kidd, father of a freshman son and sophomore daughter at Flowing Wells High School, said he's still not sure requiring students to pass AIMS to graduate is a good idea, no matter who is writing the test questions.

Kidd, a self-described former military brat, knows all too well how different schools have varied expectations for students. Kidd often lost credits in transferring from school to school and eventually gave up at the age of 16.

"All of these schools are different," Kidd said. "They may reach the same point, but they may take different paths to get there."

Gridley Middle School Principal Sharyn Graf supports changing the test questions, particularly on the eighth-grade math test, which Horne has singled out as being out of touch with what students are taught.

"I don't know if teachers' writing the questions is the most critical component of it," Graf said. "But the state will get the insight of people who are dealing with this on a daily basis."

* To contact reporters: Sarah Garrecht Gassen, 573-4117 or sgassen@azstarnet.com; Jennifer Sterba, 573-4191 or jsterba@azstarnet.com.