Hold cheers for gains on AIMS test
Arizona Republic
Oct. 31, 2005


My Turn
Fact or fiction: The educational performance of Arizona students is improving.

To judge from the proverbial champagne corks popping in public schools around the state as a result of rising scores on the Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards test, one would conclude that schools are doing better at the job of education.

Not so fast. The AIMS results are contradicted by the recent National Assessment of Educational Progress results, which show that Arizona test scores have stagnated.

The NAEP tests suggest that the fears of those who support greater educational accountability are correct: Rising scores on state tests are not the result of improved student performance, but of watering down the state tests to manufacture better results.

The NAEP test is a consistent benchmark that measures proficiency in reading and mathematics. The overall national 2005 NAEP scores in reading are
sobering: 38 percent of all American fourth-graders scored below the most basic level, along with 29 percent of eighth-graders.

Almost 20 states have reported gains in eighth-grade reading proficiency over the past two years on their own tests, but analysis of NAEP results by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation indicates those gains are largely illusory.
Arizona was labeled one of six "worst offenders" because their NAEP scores actually decreased while state test scores showed improvement.

For Arizona fourth-graders, the percentage scoring below basic proficiency in reading on NAEP increased from 46 percent in 2003 to 48 percent this year
- a full 10 percentage points worse than the dismal national results.

At the eighth-grade level, 34 percent of Arizona schoolchildren were below basic this year, compared with 32 percent in 2003.

Test scores for minorities are worse. By this year, Black and Hispanic fourth-graders scored 31 points below White students in reading - a gap that has grown by nearly 50 percent since 1992.

By contrast, Florida schoolchildren boosted performance on both state tests and NAEP. The percentage of Florida fourth-graders below the basic reading proficiency level decreased from 37 percent in 2003 to 35 percent today.

Not coincidentally, Florida in 1999 adopted the nation's most comprehensive
K-12 education reform. When a public school fails, the state intervenes with a remedial program, and the students are given the chance to transfer to any better-performing public school or private school, at state expense. Since the program was adopted, Florida actually has strengthened accountability measures, while Arizona has diluted its standards.

The results have been dramatic for the groups most in need of help. The academic gap between minority and White students as evidenced by NAEP results has closed considerably. Likewise, test scores for children eligible for free and reduced-cost lunch programs have improved relative to wealthier students.

Increased choice and competition in education improve educational performance. Arizona should adopt school-choice legislation that allows children at greatest educational risk - low-income children, students in poor-performing schools, children with disabilities, and children for whom English is a second language - to choose private as well as public schools.

In the meantime, our public officials need to stop the charade. Imagine a doctor telling a patient whose condition is worsening, "All better now!" A false favorable prognosis is much worse than a true unfavorable one, particularly when a cure is within our grasp.

Arizona needs to make more educational options available to children who need them most. Such a step would ensure that when we think we're moving in a forward direction, we really are moving closer to our destination.

The writer is president and general counsel of the Alliance for School Choice, a Phoenix-based non-profit educational policy group advocating school-choice programs across the country (www.allianceforschoolchoice.org).