Little change in AIMS scores
Jul. 18, 2007
State finally can compare 3 years of similar data
Pat Kossan and Matt Dempsey
Arizona students are making small gains in learning in some grades
but are flatlining in others, particularly in late middle school and
early high school, new test scores indicate.
The slight gains on the statewide AIMS test mostly came this year
compared with 2006, as the share of students passing math and
reading rose by a few percentage points in many grades. But the
gains have been less pronounced since 2005.
Scores for many English-learners have fallen.
For the first time, the AIMS test and passing score have not changed
in three years. That gives educators a more reliable way to compare
student achievement over time.
The message being sent by results is that progress is slow, and many
students are stagnating. The flat scores over three years in eighth
and 10th grades worry educators because kids need to ramp up their
academic skills as the curriculum in high school gets tougher.
"Right now, we're getting mixed messages," said Joe O'Reilly of the
Mesa Unified District, the largest in the state. "Some are up, some
The goal is to forge a steady rise of 1 or 2 percentage points at
each grade level from now on, though gaining each point will get
tougher and tougher.
Educators and policymakers say it will take new investments in
technology and teacher training, help from parents, and help for
struggling families so each child can work at peak levels.
"Certainly those involved in education have realized there is no
magic bullet," said Susan Carlson of the Arizona Business and
"You just can't keep pushing and pushing and think all of a sudden
there's going to be a transformational change in test scores. It
takes hard work."
State schools chief Tom Horne said he is pleased with the small
gains students made in reading, writing and math.
"A move of 1 or 2 percent is a significant gain when testing 600,000
students," he said.
Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards is eight years old. Now
that a uniform test is in place, it will be used in a more
customized way to drive improvement at school, teacher and student
levels, officials say. The tests enable the state to separate the
best schools from the worst and send in teams to help schools
falling behind. It also gives the state the power to replace
principals at schools not making progress.
Paul Koehler, a director for WestEd, a public policy and research
group, said low-performing schools are taking AIMS results
seriously. They are pulling apart the testing data and following
each student's progress over the past three years.
"We're going to teach and test, and if the kids don't know it, we're
going to reteach," Koehler said. "That's what I see is really
"The change isn't going to happen statewide. It's going to happen
school by school."
The tools to get ahead are more readily available to some districts
Many large districts have the expertise and technology to help their
teachers parse the test data and determine what each student knows
and needs to learn.
That was Roger Freeman's job when he was director of testing and
technology for the Paradise Valley Unified Schools District. Now, he
is superintendent of the small West Valley Littleton Elementary
District and has found himself stepping back in time. In Paradise
Valley, it took a few keystrokes to separate and compare student
data over years and send it to appropriate teachers.
Now, he is watching his staff members enter the data by hand.
"We don't have staff to do a lot of reports and don't have broadly
trained teachers in technology applications," Freeman said. "There's
a ton of data available to people, but being able to ask questions
of the data and to get answers that are usable is a whole different
The other drag on moving test scores ahead is finding a successful
way to help language learners grasp English and maintain grade-level
Politicians and schools have been arguing for years over the best
way to teach these children, and the children have fallen years
behind their peers.
"For us to bicker over the needs of English-language learners
doesn't help the kids," Carlson said. "I do understand the struggle
and frustration to do it right and do it quickly."
This school year is the first time the state will require schools to
establish a uniform, four-hour program of English grammar,
phonetics, reading and writing for every learner.
"It's pretty dramatic, but these AIMS tests are given in English,"
Koehler said. "So I think the kids need the help."