Arizona’s Meaningless AIMS Reading Tests

by theschoolprincipal on November 8, 2010

Am hoping to finish my remarks about AIMS (Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards) with this post and my next post. My last post pertained to Arizona’s math test, which, in my opinion, has turned out to be meaningless. Writing about meaningless things is — well — meaningless. But here I go:

AIMS Reading Tests

All teachers and parents want to know how students are progressing with reading as they continue through the grades. Assessing reading is a legitimate undertaking. Years ago students were given  tests such as the Iowa Test of Basic Skills or the California Achievement Tests so that we  could see how our students compared with students across the nation. Now that each state write its own tests, we no longer can compare our students to those in other states. Our state tests Arizona students against  its own standards, which differ in several ways from other states’ standards.

Standards. That’s the operative word here. You see,  high school English teachers refer to the state’s English standards when planning their lessons.  In high school, English classes are about subject-verb agreement, topic sentences and research papers. High school English is also about such classics as The Odyssey, Romeo and Juliet, and The Crucible.  That’s what high school students read. English teachers don’t teach “reading,” as such. They teach students how to better read literature and hopefully how to enjoy the classics.

However, Arizona’s AIMS reading test in high school, which is intended to measure standards, does not actually measure Arizona’s standards. Instead, the AIMS test  presents reading passages.  These passages are not from literature, although the state standards are basically about literature. The state AIMS reading test presents students with boring, trite passages about nothing they’re interested in and then asks them to answer questions about what they’ve just read. Passage after passage after passage.

Which teachers are responsible for teaching students how to take a high stakes reading test that measures their ability to read,  not their ability to read literature? Certainly English teachers should not be held responsible. English teachers are responsible for a four-year literature-based and writing-based curriculum, which takes the entire year to teach. English teachers don’t have the time to teach how to read meaningless passages. But meaningless passages are what the AIMS reading test assesses.

My high school is fortunate to have a reading teacher. However, she works mostly with freshmen who have reading difficulties and with English language learners in three two-hour blocks. In the course of her day, she teaches about 45  students. She is not there to prepare 500 sophomores to pass their AIMS reading test.  Some Arizona high schools don’t have a reading teacher. A secondary, certified reading teacher is not easy to find.

So who will work with the  20 – 30% of sophomores who are unable to pass the AIMS reading test? You have to understand in my school district about 90% of our elementary students do pass their AIMS reading tests in the early grades. But we have a very transient school district. If we had a more stable district, then 90% of the freshmen would arrive ready to do well on their sophomore reading test. But that’s not the reality we deal with here, and the same can be said for most Arizona districts.

Realizing that our English teachers could not be held responsible for the AIMS reading test, my high school tried several models for teaching reading and writing in the content areas. It’s not an easy thing to do because social studies and science teachers, as well as p.e., art and Career and Technical Ed teachers, have their own very comprehensive curricula — and they are not trained to teach reading or writing. But we certainly gave it our best shot. However, this model requires a great deal of training, which can’t be accomplished overnight.

Here’s one way it could be done: Social studies in the sophomore year, the year the AIMS tests are first given in high school, is about world history. World history teachers can be taught strategies for helping students read about world history. If we have to give these tests, why not have sophomores read passages about world history on the AIMS reading test? Students wouldn’t necessarily be tested on world history. Instead they could be given new information and new facts, new charts, etc. that they could be questioned about to see if they could make sense out of the kind of information they’ll encounter in magazines and newspapers — or on the internet. In a democracy, where writers can write anything they want, whether it’s factual or not, that’s a necessary skill. But because they’ve been studying world history all year, they should have the background to handle the reading test.

Or why not have the AIMS science test be a reading test about science and kill two birds with one stone? Less expensive, less time consuming, and much more meaningful.

But what do we do the following year with juniors who did not pass the sophomore reading test? American history teachers will not be motivated to spend serious time teaching students to read in their content area — American history — if 70% -80% or more sophomores passed the test and the following year the 20% – 30% of the juniors who need to retake it are spread throughout the junior social studies classes. A teacher might have one of these juniors in 1st period and 3 of these juniors in 2nd period and so on. When the teacher gets out his reading materials and hears the rest of the students groan, then most teachers of junior social studies will not continue teaching reading strategies to juniors. The same thing will happen the following year with the seniors who still have not passed the test.

My opinion: if a student has been on grade level in reading year after year and then again during the freshman year, why does he need to take another reading test as a sophomore? Students who have consistently been below grade level in reading or who are right on the cusp can be tested their sophomore year. For students who don’t pass the test, if the state is serious about helping them, then the state will have to provide the money for high schools to hire reading teachers (who are not easy to find) so that students have some help from teachers who have this specialized knowledge. Social studies and science teachers know about their content area. They can help these students to some extent, but they simply don’t have the knowledge and experience of a trained reading teacher.

Lessons Learned:

Change in education is a slow process that starts in the early grades. The shock wave resulting from NCLB is not the way to improve education.

If we are to improve, we must be given the resources to do so. Simply saying, “Here, improve your scores each year, or get fired” won’t get results.

We should not penalize the students who are already doing well by insisting that they participate in the drill and kill exercises which supposedly will help the other  students pass their tests.  The students who are doing well should not have to take these tests in the first place.

Next post: Arizona’s AIMS Writing Test

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