Brainiac kids put AIMS test in doubt
University High's showing on writing brings questions
By Daniel Scarpinato

Educators, students and parents at University High School are challenging the validity of the AIMS test after a relatively low number of students at the high-performing school exceeded the state's writing standards.
But State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne says the discrepancies stem from problems his department is working to fix by increasing from two to eight the number of people who grade an individual writing exam.
As part of an informal experiment, the high school compared AIMS scores from 33 of last year's seniors with scores those same students received on the SAT, ACT and AP exams. All the students had already passed the AIMS their sophomore year, had received a total of $2 million in college scholarships and voluntarily agreed to take the writing portion again.
The school, which was found in January to be at the head of its class globally when it comes to testing success in its Advanced Placement program, says AIMS writing scores were "demonstrably lower" than student scores on various national assessment exams.
About 30 percent of the students exceeded the state's standards. Only about 2 percent received the highest score possible - a 6 - in one of several areas evaluated.
Statewide, only 2 percent of last year's sophomores, the first class required to pass AIMS in order to receive a diploma, exceeded the writing exam standards.
A University High site council of about 30 teachers, students and parents argue that if a majority of students at University High - a highly competitive college preparatory school in Tucson Unified School District - are not exceeding the state standards, then the grading process might be flawed.
"If we're bad at writing, everybody in the state is bad at writing," said Principal Stuart Baker, who came up with the idea of comparing student scores. "I want to be clear, the idea of AIMS has really pushed the state and the school district - as painful as it is - toward higher standards, but the abstract way this is being graded needs to be cleared up so there is an even playing field."
The AIMS also includes math and language exams, which were not analyzed in the University High study.
Horne says change is already under way.
Since taking office in 2003, Horne said he's worked to change the grading process. A new company has been hired to grade the tests. Previous exams, including those from University High, were graded by two people. Now, eight will grade individual tests.
Horne said the Board of Education will also look at the standards needed for a top score.
"I think the point is 'exceeds' doesn't mean it has to be perfect," Horne said.
Students are assigned one of several categories depending on their score: exceeds the standards, meets the standards, approaches the standards or falls far below the standards.
Problems with the grading system are not news to educators, said Canyon del Oro Principal Michael Gemma. Only 2 percent of his students exceeded the state standards in writing last time around.
For students who didn't, he doesn't have any advice. The state doesn't send back the tests, so students can't see what they've done wrong, and the scoring system is not clearly defined, he said.
"We're not sure what the score truly means," Gemma said. "To be honest, I'm not sure what to tell them."
Baker called for the study after only 6 percent of University High sophomores exceeded standards on the AIMS writing test in 2003-04. Meanwhile, the average SAT verbal score trumped the national average. The average SAT score for University High students that year exceeded 1300 out of a possible 1600, more than 250 points higher than the national average.
Not only were the scores lower than expected, but some student scores dropped from their previous attempt.
Also troubling, Baker says, are individual scores on the AIMS writing portion, which he says reveal hiccups in the scoring process. The writing part of the AIMS exam scores students in six areas: ideas and content, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency and conventions. No senior achieved a margin greater than one point between any two trait scores, Baker said. And 84 percent of the seniors received identical scores in each of those areas.
University High's goal is not to lead a rebellion against the AIMS test, a source of controversy among state educators and politicians, said English Department Chair Kris Tully. Rather, the site council wants the state to re-evaluate the grading process and in December wrote a letter to Horne warning him of "potential legal liability" if changes are not made.
To University High senior Mara Gregory, 18, it's about more than how the test is graded. Gregory said that compared with SAT and AP writing exams, the AIMS questions are vague and seem to prompt an answer.
"The AP was more about comparing and contrasting different works. The AIMS was just an essay persuading someone to do something," she said.
● Contact reporter Daniel Scarpinato at 573-4195 or