State talks tweak for AIMS test
Flaws in its design faulted for low eighth-grade scores
ARIZONA DAILY STAR
Sept 3, 2003
By Sarah Garrecht Gassen and Jennifer Sterba
State education officials will change AIMS tests after most eighth-graders here
and across the state again failed the math and writing portions.
About eight out of 10 eighth-graders failed the state math test they took this
spring, and just over half failed the writing test, results released Tuesday
show. Eighth-graders did better on the reading portion, with slightly more than
But flaws in the design of the test caused "misleadingly low" scores in the
eighth grade, according to Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne, who
is in his first year in office.
The AIMS test is intended to find out whether students know what the state says
they should in math, writing and reading, in grades three, five, eight and 10.
The results are used by the state and federal governments in labeling schools'
performance levels and marking "underperforming" schools for possible state
intervention, which will happen in October.
Beginning with this year's high school sophomore class, students must pass the
AIMS test in order to graduate. Horne said he has eliminated an alternative
offered by his predecessor, which would have allowed students who failed AIMS to
instead complete a special project to earn a diploma.
Students who took the test last spring as 10th-graders knew the test would not
affect their graduation. High school juniors and seniors can retake the
10th-grade test if they haven't passed.
AIMS, which stands for Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards, was first
given in 1999. Portions of the test have been changed before, after many
Horne said the next changes will not dumb down the test but will make questions
more "reasonable" and "straightforward" and will more closely match academic
standards for eighth grade and high school.
All AIMS tests will be tweaked, he said, especially the eighth-grade version.
"The eighth-grade test is not matching the academic standards as well as you
would like it to," Horne said. "It's at a very high level of difficulty - some
of the questions are asking for more steps than the kids really needed to know."
For example, a question might ask a student to calculate the perimeter of a
rectangle. "You can ask it in a straightforward way or in a way with more
complicated arithmetic that has traps in it, like fractions," he said.
Math skills, such as fractions, are tested in other questions on the test, Horne
The eighth-grade math test was also graded more harshly because the committee of
teachers determining the passing grade set higher expectations than in other
grades, Horne said. For example, eighth-graders had to get 78 percent of the
questions right in order to pass, while 68 percent was a passing score in other
grades, he said.
"I think that probably will change," Horne said.
A group of Arizona public school teachers will gather to write new questions for
half of the AIMS tests students will take next spring, and the entire test will
be rewritten by the 2004-05 school year, Horne said.
Questions on the tests students have taken for the past several years were
written by a national testing company and were based on Arizona academic
Last year's overall eighth-grade passing and failing results were almost
identical to this year's.
Flowing Wells High School freshman Tommy Kidd isn't worried about having to pass
the test to graduate and agrees that the eighth-grade test should be
overhauled. "They should change it a little bit - I'd make the questions not so
obvious in math," he said.
His father, Eric Kidd, said he thinks his son and daughter will do fine, but the
state should use AIMS to detect problems in school and offer help.
"Actually keeping students from graduating is a little ridiculous," he said.
Utterback Middle Magnet School Principal Debbie Summers said her math teachers
say the AIMS test does not match what the state tells teachers to teach by grade
"It's real important the test measures those things and not put in the 'gotchas,'
" said Summers, whose school is in Tucson Unified School District, the city's
Marana Unified School District saw drops in reading, writing and math for
eighth-graders at both its middle schools.
Of Marana's Tortolita Middle School eighth-graders, 26 percent passed math, 10
percent fewer than passed in 2002.
However, "eighth grade is not a predictor of how they will do in 10th grade,"
said district Assistant Superintendent Ron Rickel.
"When they know it counts, I think they will put a sincere effort into doing
well on the test."
Catalina Foothills Unified School District again saw more than 80 percent of
its students pass the AIMS reading test at the eighth-grade level.
But since most districts didn't do that well, Foothills' Associate
Superintendent Terry Downey joins others in questioning the appropriateness of
the current test.
"Either we're ineffective teachers or this isn't a particularly good test," she
said. "I think we're actually better at teaching than that."
Sunnyside Unified School District's AIMS scores were up across the board, but
district officials said they still have concerns about the impending second
round of state labels that will identify which schools are failing to teach
Five Sunnyside schools were labeled underperforming last year. Those schools
have until fall 2004 to improve their test scores and attendance in order to
avoid state intervention.
Apollo Middle School led the district in eighth-grade improvements.
The percentage of Apollo Middle School eighth-graders passing the AIMS math test
jumped from just 2 percent in 2002 to 14 percent this spring.
Reading-proficient eighth-graders jumped from 33 percent to 43 percent.
Apollo math teacher David Shanler said students have ample time to learn what
they need to know for the test - but he added he's not a fan of AIMS.
"It's a high-stakes test," he said. "I'd hate to see a kid pass or fail on the
results of one test."
* Star reporter Colleen Sparks contributed to this story.
* Contact reporter Sarah Garrecht Gassen at 573-4117 or