Wandering with Alice through the Wonderland of Arizona AIMS Testing

by theschoolprincipal on October 20, 2010

My very first blog post, published in October 2010, was about the unintended consequences in Arizona of No Child Left Behind. This post expounds upon that theme.

In Arizona,  in order to receive a high school diploma, students must “pass”  AIMS tests in reading, writing, and math, given first during high school during the sophomore year. Students who do not pass a particular test  retake it each year until they make a passing score.

Unintended Consequence #2: (see my first post for #1)

NCLB was supposed to raise standards. Ironically, NCLB has led to lowering of standards in such a way that it is meaningless to talk about the results.

We all believe in high standards. Teachers do, administrators do, and I am convinced that President Bush, Senator Kennedy, and  Congress did as well when NCLB was passed overwhelmingly in 1991. Those of you disturbed by the political games and oneupsmanship  seen in Congress today may be unaware that both Democrats and Republicans joined together in almost seamless support when they passed NCLB.

States are responsible for writing their own tests. Probably the best known test is the TASS test administered in Texas. In Arizona, we have the AIMS, Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards.

When the first AIMS tests were administered, students’ results did not count toward graduation. The state wanted to revise the tests until they felt they had gotten it “right.” The tests were revised for a couple of years before the scores started to count. During that time the scores across the state were dismal because students knew their scores could not keep them from graduating.

Finally, students in one lucky sophomore class found it was their fate to be part of the first class to pass AIMS by their senior year if they expected to receive a high school diploma. The scores went up significantly — but the percentage of sophomores who passed across the state was still embarrassing. So the state revised the tests yet again. And again. By the time these sophomores were seniors the state had a problem because a large percentage of Arizona seniors were not going  to graduate.

So what did the state do? It lowered the cut score — the “passing” score.

Then when Arizona students still didn’t have enough graduating seniors, the state came up with a plan that finally allowed us to have a respectable number of graduating seniors. If a senior had  not passed a particular AIMS test, we were given a formula to use in which we took that student’s grades in his core classes, applied a little math, and got a figure to add to his AIMS score. When these points were added to his AIMS score, the senior was now likely to have a passing AIMS score.

One of the purposes of NCLB was to raise standards. Do you see why I began to think of myself as Alice wandering around in Wonderland where almost nothing makes sense?

I have no objection to the state revisions of the AIMS tests. It usually takes a few revisions to end up with  tests which are an accurate and realistic  indicator of  10th grade  standards.

What I do object to is lowering the cut score. High standards are high standards –nothing less. In a classroom, if 60% is a passing grade but a particular teacher allows his students to pass with a 50%, there is no standard.  Students are not challenged to work hard and to push themselves — and to dig deep down and discover what they’re really capable of.

Students who have a high  score on the AIMS  tests, particularly the math test, have reason to be proud. But the scores of  the students who barely passed are meaningless. So when we say that 75% or 80% of the class passed a particular test, it is meaningless.

For us to spend so much money and other resources on meaningless tests that give us meaningless information really bothers me. The most important resource  in school is time. The time that it takes to give these three tests twice a year concerns me. That’s six testing days that students are not in class. Then there are the make-up days. To accomplish this takes time away from other important school initiatives. The number of staff members — counselors, teachers, principals, support staff — who have to gear up and get lists of students ready, assign testing rooms and teachers, count out the tests, train the teachers, make sure that we get them all tests back, etc — and oh yes, arrange the tutoring sessions for students who haven’t passed, keep track of who doesn’t show up for the tutoring  — it is an immense use of staff time.

If the results of the math test meant something, that would be one thing. But they doesn’t. Unintended Consequence #2 of NCLB: NCLB was meant to raise standards. Ironically, NCLB has led to lowering of standards in such a way that it is meaningless to talk about the results.

More to follow about the AIMS math test in my next post. But in the meantime EdWeek.org has just published research by the American Institutes for Research, revealing that the problem I have written about in today’s blog is pervasive throughout the country. Anyone surprised?

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