Arizona’s AIMS (Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards) Writing Test is one of three state high school tests that resulted from federal mandates under No Child Left Behind. Students must pass all three tests in order to receive their diplomas. In Arizona, this test is a moving target. We never know from year to year what kind of writing students will be asked to do. A teacher in my district spoke to the state coordinator, who believes that students should be able to write anything successfully. In a perfect world, she may be right. But in the world of a very large high school –with 2000 students –teaching students how to accomplish this is not quite as easy as she seems to think.
1. She doesn’t know that the state writing standards for English teachers include the business letter, the resume, the research paper, and writing in response to reading literature. In other words, Arizona English teachers may be introducing all of those types of writing but students don’t get enough practice with all of them. Think what a comprehensive curriculum that English teachers are required to teach. Any high stakes test like AIMS that students are tested on requires that students practice those kinds of writing often enough to be proficient. There’s just not enough time in the year for students to become that proficient.
2. She forgets that this is a high stakes test, which students must pass in order to graduate, so it is important to our students. We must take this task seriously.
3. She has no knowledge of how difficult it is for a large, comprehensive high school with 2000 students to regroup and reconfigure in order to improve students’ writing scores.
It was obvious that English teachers could not be solely responsible for the AIMS writing test — for the same reason that they can not be responsible for the AIMS reading test. The state standards for English in both cases do not match the tests have been created for that purpose.
At our school 4th period is almost two hours long because, in addition to class, we have 3 lunches during 4th period. While some students are at lunch, other students have what is almost a twenty minute study hall during 4th period. For a few years we tried using that extra time one week of each quarter. Fourth period teachers assigned a writing prompt. Students completed the assignment in class during the course of that week. We did not allow these practice assignments to be completed as homework because a) some students would copy papers from the internet b) some would get a brother or girlfriend to write it for them and c) some would simply not do the assignment.
An example of a writing prompt given to students on the AIMS test might be to tell how to improve the school. Nothing wrong with that, really. And if the state coordinator for writing had stuck to that type of prompt, we would have had something to focus on. We call that type of writing “the explanation essay,” which is a type of expository writing. Expository writing teaches students to think and analyze and then articulate their thoughts.
You need to understand that math teachers and band teachers and shop teachers have not been taught how to teach writing — much less evaluate it. All teachers who taught a 4th period class attended workshops in order to learn how to produce good writers. If there’s one thing I know about teachers, it’s this: teachers do not like to look ignorant in front of their students. Teachers are comfortable with their own content area. However, when they don’t know something outside of their content area, they are afraid that their students will find them out. Each quarter all 4th period students received the same prompt, and their teachers did the best they could to provide feedback. But it was not satisfactory. So we looked for a different model.
I knew that student writing could be used to help teachers teach their own content and to help students learn it and recall it. We had been so caught up in getting students ready for the AIMS test that we had forgotten about rigor. No more of that! Each department chose one kind of expository writing that would best support that department in its teaching endeavors. Social studies chose cause-effect, science chose compare-contrast, vocational classes chose the process (how to) essay, etc. Now we were on to something. Departments then selected their own prompts. These AIMS practice assignments were now writing assignments that could actually help students learn their material in the content areas. Was it easy? No. Again, department meetings were needed in order to figure out the details. Teachers had to attend more how-to workshops.
We were feeling better because now we had figured out a way to increase our ACADEMIC RIGOR. Hooray, hooray.
Until the next AIMS test. You’re not going to believe the prompt the state of Arizona gave for the test: “Every student has a happy place. Think about your happy place and tell us about it.”
We had been practicing five paragraph expository essays with our students all year. Make sure you get the picture. Each quarter a student in a first period science class would be writing a compare/contrast essay; if his second period was history, he wrote a cause effect essay, if his third period was p.e., he wrote a process paper, and so on. Sometime during each quarter, every student wrote five to six major essays, all using a different type of expository writing. And teachers assigned and graded these essays in every period once a quarter. Whoopee!
That year teachers could not understand why our top students broke down in tears during the writing test. We had been practicing five paragraph essays all year long. Our students, of course, were trying to extend their thoughts about their happy place into a five paragraph essay. They just couldn’t do it. A writing prompt as trite as that could have easily been handled in one long paragraph. Did the school bare some blame? Only that we hadn’t warned our students how to adjust if the prompt was vacuous and trite. But we were focused on academic rigor. Isn’t that what the school reform movement is about? Never did we suppose that someone at the state level would be this removed from what high schools were doing in the trenches. And, after all, didn’t that darn woman know that this test is for high school, not elementary school?
Needless to say, our scores did not improve that year.
I was angry that the state, with no understanding of what it takes for a school to reorganize for a new challenge such as the AIMS writing test, had again made sure that the AIMS writing test, along with all of the other AIMS tests, was basically meaningless.
I said to my teachers at that point: You know what? Forget the AIMS writing test. We are going to head much higher than the AIMS test. We are trying to increase our academic rigor and we’re not going to let AIMS get us off track. Continue with the writing assignments in your classes and we will just hope the extra practice filters down and helps our students when they take the test.