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Promises of AIMS changes cheered
The next test will use questions from Arizona educators for half of the content, making the standards more realistic, the state superintendent of education says.
Tucson Citizen
Sept. 4, 2003


Students, parents and educators are exhibiting joy and relief today upon hearing changes will be made to the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards test.

After another year of very low scores in eighth-grade math and writing, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne is proposing revisions at all grade levels, including lowering the grade to pass the math test and making sure the questions being asked are aligned with state standards being taught.

"When we have a district average in the 70th percentile in math on the Stanford 9 test, which compares scores to a national norm, and we have that same district average 40 points lower than that in AIMS, it has always been suspect," said Amphitheater Public Schools Superintendent Vicki Balentine.

Daniel Wegener, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction at Sunnyside Unified School District, said the eighth-grade math test always looked for the "ideal, not what is real. From the very beginning, the standards were unnecessarily high for eighth-graders.

"Each year we generate more data that the test is off," he said. "It can't be that we as a state are that inept. It's that the scope and level of difficulty is not appropriate for students that age. The correction is long overdue.

"But we do have to help the public understand that we are not caving in here, we're just solving a problem that needs to be fixed," he said.

Horne has said AIMS next spring will have half of its questions generated by committees made up of Arizona educators as opposed to being determined by an outside agency. By the following year, all AIMS questions will be Arizona-generated.

Horne said he thinks tests with those questions will better reflect state standards and what is being taught across the state, and so more students will pass.

"Those changes will be great for us and any school that's following the state standards," said John Michel, principal at Hohokam Middle School, a West Side school that has struggled on standardized tests.

"Kids in classes get very discouraged. If we can talk it up, tell them, 'You can pass the test now with these changes,' it should help," the principal said.

"Changing the math passing percentage from 78 to 68, which is the score that most teachers consider the cutoff between passing and failing, will be a real positive change and students and parents might see the test as something that was attainable," he said. "Seventy-eight percent is way too high."

"There are so many students who don't think they can get it now (when it's above what is required to pass a test in school)," he said, adding that the lower threshold will "give them that extra push" to try to pass.

Michel said the changes should give parents a higher comfort level: "I think it will give everybody a little sigh of relief."

"One worry is that people will think we are looking at dumbing down the test, but we just want to make sure we are actually testing what we are teaching, which is based on the state standards," said Faye West, principal at Doolen Middle School.

Doolen Assistant Principal Pat Vold said, "Anytime your scores are skewed as much as they are and it was widespread, you need to look at the test. There was concern that so many students across the board were not being successful."

It didn't make sense, "because everyone has been working very hard with students in reading, writing and math skills. They are getting a lot of good information," Vold said.

Horne said he expects AIMS scores to rise because of the newer questions, because teachers are getting used to teaching the standards and because the state Department of Education, under his leadership, is more service-oriented than enforcement-oriented, and so it is concentrating more on the state's 276 schools that have been labeled underperforming. Test scores are one of the factors in assigning those labels.

He said the biggest changes on AIMS will be in future years, as passing the test in high school becomes a requirement for graduation.

Adam Collins, an eighth-grade student council representative at Apollo Middle School, said he thinks students will have a better chance of passing AIMS once the changes are made.

"It would help out if what I was being taught is what they're going to test me on," he said. And changing the passing percentage on the math is a "good idea and pretty fair."

Collins also thinks students should be able to retake AIMS in the same year. "People can have off days when otherwise they would do just fine," he said.

While he takes the test seriously and he thinks most of his classmates do also, "I know the teachers worry a lot, and in some cases, more than the kids."

Renee Scaff, an eighth-grader at Challenger Middle School and a student council representative, said she hadn't been worried about taking AIMS this spring - until last year's scores were published yesterday. "I kind of am scared now."

So is her mom, Sandra Scaff, a secretary in the Sunnyside district, who said employees were looking seriously at the scores, not just in the district, but statewide yesterday. "We were surprised at the percentage that failed everywhere," she said. "You can't have a whole state not learning. I think the changes are a good idea."