Taking aim at AIMS

My older sister lived in Scottsdale, Arizona, for many years and her six children attended the public schools there. Her oldest child, my niece, took most of her public schooling in Texas and is now a teacher in Florida. The rest are graduates of the Arizona school system. Whenever I visited her, which I especially liked to do in the winter, I always talked to my nieces and nephews about what they were doing in school. My most memorable exchange was about a dozen years ago, with my nephew Steve.

I asked Steve what book they were reading in his high school English class. He replied that they were "doing Captains Courageous." I said, "How much of it have you read?" And he replied, "Well, we don't actually read it, we saw the movie and we are discussing it." That, plus similar conversations, left me with concerns about the quality of education in Arizona at that time.

When Lisa Graham Keegan was state superintendent, she tried to shake up this lax approach and put in its place a system of standards, assessments, and accountability. The hallmark of her reforms was the development of AIMS (Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards), the state test required for graduation.

Failure rates were high on this test, but the test questions were not particularly difficult. In one question, for example, students were given a map with a weather forecast for the state of Arizona, then asked a series of factual questions based on the map, like which of four places was warmest on December 28.

In math, the students were asked to answer the following: The table below shows the distance five students live from school. Which of the following conclusions can be drawn from the information?

StudentDistance in Miles

A All the students live less than 2.0 miles from school
B All the students live less than 0.5 miles from school
C All the students live more than 2.0 miles from school
D All the students live between 1.0 and 2.0 miles from school

A typical essay question asked students to write to a college requesting information about admissions. Students who can read and write can pass the AIMS tests in these subjects.

Keegan fought off efforts to dumb down or kill the test. However, she left office a few months ago, and her successor decided to make peace with her critics. Last week the new state superintendent Jaime Molera announced a series of moves to water down the requirements for graduation, mainly by deferring the consequences of failing the exam and by allowing students to avoid taking the state test.

Under current policy, the class of 2002 must pass the reading and writing portions of AIMS to graduate, and the class of 2004 must also pass the math portion of the state exam. However, failure rates have been high, especially among minorities, and opposition to the test has grown. Parents whose children were in danger of not graduating have successfully demanded delays in implementation; legislators have threatened to withdraw funding; civil rights groups have threatened lawsuits; organized education groups let it be known that they did not like the test and the graduation requirements.

Molera plans to delay implementation of the graduation requirement so that it would not affect anyone until the class of 2006 (and it could always be deferred yet again, perhaps forever). In addition, students who cannot pass AIMS will be able to graduate by taking an extra course or completing a writing project, perhaps a book report. Allowing students to graduate who cannot demonstrate their ability to read and write on an independent assessment will gut the graduation requirement and allow everyone to relax. Students will still be required to take the test, but they won't be required to pass it. That certainly removes any incentive for students to prepare for the test.

The state test shined a bright light on academic failure; it forced everyone to pay attention. It compelled the system to come up with better ways to prepare students who were not learning to read and write well enough to function independently in our society. Take that bright light away, and everyone can go back to business as usual.

Critics of the test say that the money spent on testing should be devoted to the classroom instead. One, who filed a civil rights complaint against the test, claiming that it was unfair to minorities, admitted that it was valuable to know how far behind minorities actually are in meeting the standards. If such critics eventually succeed in eliminating the state test, they won't even have the information on which to base their future legal challenges nor any means of knowing whether the gaps are growing smaller or larger.

The new superintendent's goal is to make everyone happy. Or at least to calm the loudest critics. According to the story in the Arizona Republic, Molera announced his changes at a press conference where he was surrounded "by the same educational leaders once scorned by his predecessor."

Says Superintendent Molera about his plan: "The system we propose mirrors the conviction Arizonans hold for our public education system." He's right about that. The changes he is proposing will secure once again the status quo ante. It will restore to parents, teachers, and administrators the system that they knew and with which they were very comfortable, one that allowed students to graduate without having to pass a state test, one in which the massive failure of minorities and disadvantaged kids was quietly ignored.

It's back to the kind of system that failed to educate my nephew Steve and his brothers. Steve is a clerk in a hardware store, just the kind of job that his Arizona education prepared him for. One of his brothers drives a wrecker truck; another works on a farm. The youngest, a girl, went to college, but none of the boys did. None of them was encouraged to use their brains and to raise their aspirations. They attended school in a system of low expectations, and that system is now planning its comeback. Too bad.

For details on developments in Arizona, see "Tamer AIMS on the Way," by Pat Kossan, Arizona Republic, August 24, 2001, http://www.arizonarepublic.com/news/articles/0824aims24.html

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