AIMS baffling districts
The Arizona Republic
Jul. 14, 2006

Writing results vary dramatically
Karina Bland and Carrie Watters

Last year at this time, officials in the Phoenix Union High School District were celebrating, boasting of huge jumps in their state test scores.

The release of this year's results of the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards, or AIMS, finds them puzzling over what went wrong.

They're not alone. In Phoenix and across the state, administrators are trying to make sense of scores that either skyrocketed or dropped dramatically, almost all in writing. For example, 91 percent of sixth-graders statewide passed the writing section of AIMS, up 18 percent over last year. Conversely, 62 percent of the state's fifth-graders passed in writing, down from 69 percent in 2005.

Some educators are questioning the fairness of the test's writing scores after a change in how student essays were scored. Instead of three people grading an essay, as many as six people scored each one, looking for particular writing traits.

Arizona schools chief Tom Horne announced earlier this week he is also concerned about the statewide dip in writing scores and plans to investigate.

School officials shouldn't tear their hair out, nor should parents panic, says Tom Haladyna, a professor of educational psychology at Arizona State University. He says no single test is adequate for measuring student learning.

Still, AIMS scores are used to determine schools' state and federal rankings. High school seniors have to pass AIMS to graduate.

One test not enough
Haladyna said educators and parents need information about children's
learning from a variety of sources, including student grades, district
tests, and teacher evaluations.

"The teachers in the classroom probably know the truth," Haladyna says.

He's particularly critical of writing assessments because grading is
subjective: "Human scoring is so fraught with subjectivity and error."

The people scoring the tests may change from year to year.

Also, students are given a topic to write about, often called a "prompt."
Research shows that boys do better on some prompts than girls and vice
versa, and some prompts are easier for kids from middle class families or
who grew up in the United States.

There's even debate among testing experts as to whether students should be
assigned prompts or allowed to chose their own from a list. Jim Rice,
superintendent of the Alhambra Elementary School District, likes the idea of
giving students a choice.

"It certainly provides students more of an opportunity to write to a subject
they are familiar with and that would give us a better idea of their true
abilities," he says.

Computers can grade essays now, with results similar to those graded by
experts, Haladyna says. The technology is already in use, including in
Georgia. Madison Public Schools in Phoenix use it now, and Phoenix Union
will start this fall.

Here's a roundup of districts:

Phoenix Union
In the Phoenix Union district, scores were disappointingly low. Only 49
percent of students passed math, compared with 60 percent of high school
students statewide. In reading, 61 percent passed, compared with 70 percent
statewide. And, in writing, just 54 percent passed, while the state rate was
63 percent.

"It's a little bit of a blip; it's not a huge falling back," says Art
Lebowitz, assistant superintendent of instruction and accountability.

Last year, Phoenix Union students had made great strides, almost closing the
gap between their own scores and those of students statewide.

For example, 61 percent of students passed math, just two points below the
state average. In reading, 67 percent of students passed, just one below
students statewide, and Phoenix Union students even beat the state average
in writing, with 72 percent passing, compared with 69 percent statewide.

Granted, the state lowered passing scores last year, making the test easier,
but district officials figured about half the gain is genuine improvement.
They credited better reading scores last year to a new program for
struggling readers.

This week, principals from all 10 schools met to study the scores and decide
how to bring them up in the coming year.

"The question is, can we reinvigorate the work going on on every campus and
in every classroom to replicate some of the gains we had in 2005?" Lebowitz

He thinks they can.

Alhambra Elementary
In the Alhambra Elementary School District, Superintendent Rice is studying
the new AIMS results, comparing them with last year's numbers.

"Right now we're putting together our growth over last year, that looks very
positive," he says. "We're very pleased with that."

Like other districts, scores did dip in writing at some grade levels,
including third and fifth. But 88 percent of sixth-graders passed writing,
compared with 91 percent statewide. And 91 percent of seventh graders passed
writing, beating the state rate of 92 percent.

Rice is pleased with the results that show students are progressing,
especially when compared with students in other districts of similar
economic and ethnic makeup.

"Regardless, we will take that to heart and evaluate where we were weak, and
we will correct that," he says.

Already, Alhambra students are assessed every eight weeks to assure they
grasping what they are being taught. That data provides teachers with
immediate feedback of what children are learning or missing. Administrators
also use the data to decide long-term strategies for learning.

Deer Valley Unified
The district posted no substantial gains or losses in reading and math
results from the prior year. Overall, students are performing above state

In fourth-grade, 86 percent of students are meeting the state math
standards, the same as in 2005. That's seven percentage points above the
state average.

In reading, 83 percent of fourth-grade students met the state standard,
which is the same as in 2005 and 10 percentage points higher than the state

More than a dozen schools boasted 90 percent or more students reaching state
reading and math standards.

Vicki Edwards, who analyzes scores for the district, wasn't surprised to see
the minor shifts. It is harder to find drastic jumps in already
high-performing schools.

Glendale Union
Math results climbed two percentage points from 2005 to 85 percent of
sophomores proficient in math. That's 16 percentage points ahead of the
state average.

"We're on the right track," Superintendent Warren Jacobson said Tuesday.

Math is often the toughest area of the state test for high school students,
who must eventually pass the test to graduate.

Sunnyslope and Thunderbird high schools in Phoenix boasted the district's
top results, with 92 percent and 91 percent of students, respectively,
meeting state math standards.

In reading, the district saw a slight drop from 2005, although it is still
three percentage points above the state average with 80 percent of
sophomores proficient. Sunnyslope High School had 86 percent of sophomores
meeting reading standards.

The district's writing scores slid from 87 percent of sophomores meeting
state standards to 75 percent. Sophomore writing scores dropped around the
state, leading some to question whether the drop is due to changes in
scoring this portion of AIMS.

Washington Elementary
Math scores made the best showing in the Washington Elementary School
District, says Janet Sullivan, director of assessment and accountability.

In math, four of six grade levels showed increases in scores, ranging from 2
percent to 7 percent. In fourth grade, for example, 72 percent passed, up
from 65 percent last year.

Credit was given to a new districtwide math program that is closely aligned
with the state's math standards, as well as changes to district assessments.
Students are tested four times during the school year to identify any
problems long before they take AIMS in the spring.

"We're pleased with progress in math," Sullivan says, adding quickly: "Not
that we're done. We have some work to do."

But she's hard pressed to explain some of the district's reading and writing

For example, 58 percent of fifth-graders passed writing, an unexplainable
drop from 68 percent last year.

Seventh-graders passed writing at a rate of 92 percent, but only 67 percent
passed reading, scores that typically are close because the subjects often
are taught in conjunction.

"It's just hard to see them as passing the logic test," Sullivan says.