Examining The Exam

Will The AIMS Test Improve Education -- Or Just Lower Graduation Rates?

A SWARM OF high school sophomores packed the venerable auditorium at Tucson High Magnet School one noonday last week, and the doors were shaking with their shouts.

The kids were cheering on candidates for class president, their thoughts, for the moment, far from tests. But this bunch had undergone a slew of Stanford 9 standardized tests in mid-April. End-of-the-year class finals still stand between them and summer vacation. And in between those two testing marathons, still another exam looms: the dreaded AIMS.

These noisy teenagers will be part of the first wave of Arizona students to take the AIMS test and have it count.

Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards is the high-school graduation test that last year yielded disastrous results -- and disbelieving headlines -- clear across the state. Of the 45,000 sophomores who took the test, a whopping 89 percent failed the math section, 70 percent came up short in writing and 39 percent flunked reading.

"We were not happy with the results, obviously," education department official Laura Penny said in masterful understatement.

At least the test didn't count for last year's hapless test-takers, though their scores will appear on those much-feared permanent record cards. They were just guinea pigs giving the test a practice run.

This year, though, AIMS gets serious. The Class of 2002 must pass the test to earn a high school diploma in the state of Arizona. No passing grade, no graduation. Before marching to the strains of "Pomp and Circumstance" on a hot May day two years hence, this year's sophomores will get five shots at meeting the state standard in each of the three subjects. (If they pass one section, they don't need to retake that part: they have to repeat only the sections that they fail.) Their first four days of AIMS testing begin Monday, May 1.

And if Penny is not happy with last year's results, the kids are not happy about taking the test. As they streamed out of the auditorium in a boisterous rush of electoral enthusiasm, a few Tucson High students didn't mind sharing their opinions of AIMS. They have reason to worry. Last year's Tucson High sophomores' scores were a bit worse than the state's overall: 90 percent failed to meet the standard in math, 73 percent missed the grade in writing, and 44 percent failed reading comprehension.

The vocabulary one young miss in black lipstick used to describe her displeasure is not likely to appear on the reading test.

"It blows," said she. She gave her name, but for the sake of her mother, we choose not to disclose it. "It sucks. They threw it at us. They should have prepared us for it."

A candidate for class president, Leah Romaniello, was more politic.

"They should have started planning for it five years ago when we were in elementary," Romaniello said.

Emily Molina added that even though she's already in algebra II in her sophomore year, she's worried about the math test. "They should let us use calculators. I think I'll have trouble with the math. (The test) will lead to a lot of dropouts."

Upstairs, just before the rally, a group of some of the school's top 10th graders expressed similar views in a round-table discussion. Tucson High takes in a wide variety of students, from the professorial precincts of Sam Hughes to the downtown barrios, along with a sprinkling of magnet students attracted from all over the city by the school's strong offerings in science and the arts. This panel of five students in a sophomore English class for the gifted denounced the test as the enemy of creativity. They called it a reactionary social tool that will unfairly penalize kids headed for the workforce right after high school, by depriving them of much-needed diplomas. These students picked Tucson High for its arts magnet program, and they see the test as evidence that the state is lurching backward away from the arts and toward a no-frills education. And though they're good students, they still worry about passing.

"I don't think there should be standardized tests at all," said Morgan Helfrich, a jeweler and photographer. "I get good grades, but I can't pass standardized tests."

Angelina Rose Jones, who aspires to run her own theatre one day, said she agrees with state education officials that schools are in trouble. Last year, she said, in a non-gifted English class, some of her fellow ninth graders could barely read.

"Things do need to be done," Jones said. "But this is not the way to go about it. This has more to do with politics. They should grandfather the test in, starting with the kindergarten classes."

Up in the Catalina Foothills, high school students are going the Tucson High students one further. March 31, they traveled some 60 strong to the state Department of Education office downtown for a protest. Organized into a group called the Young Uprising Radicals, the students are planning another protest for this Friday, April 28, hoping to attract kids from schools across the city.

Some YUR'ers are talking boycott on test day, following the example of Massachusetts students two weeks ago, while others intend just to picket the office.

"The AIMS test has not been thought through well enough," said Foothills sophomore Jesse Merriman, YUR member and the author of a anti-AIMS pamphlet that the group was distributing to other Tucson high schools. "I'm all in favor of standards, but I don't think a standardized test should be what students need to graduate. Teachers have a better idea of how well students are doing."

THESE DISAFFECTED STUDENTS are fighting a local skirmish in a national battle over testing. The U.S. is in the midst of a testing frenzy that, at last count, had 26 states with a graduation test on the books. That number is likely to rise. Presidential candidates Al Gore and George W. Bush both support what's called the "standards movement" and its concomitant testing, with the Texas governor boasting that his state's graduation test has improved its schools.

Penny, the Arizona ed department official, traces the furor back to A Nation at Risk, a 1983 federal education report that instead of laboring in obscurity unexpectedly pushed education onto the front page and to the top of states' agendas.

A Nation at Risk declared that "a rising tide of mediocrity" was drowning America's schools. American kids were paddling their way leisurely through high school on waves of easy electives, while their diligent Japanese counterparts were dipping into calculus at earlier and earlier ages. The report warned darkly that industrious foreign students would help their nations surge ahead economically, while American students grown soft on creative writing would pull our own faltering economy under. A host of education reforms were duly spawned in statehouses around the country, the most prevalent proposals being changes in teacher education and certification, "merit pay" for gifted teachers and a career ladder that would allow the best teachers to become highly compensated "master teachers."

Never mind that in the wake of A Nation at Risk America developed its strongest economy of all time, its high technology driven by math wizards and tech-heads educated in America's public schools. The debate over America's schools continued, though it turned mostly to an ideological war between conservatives who deplored the stranglehold of the teachers' unions on public schools and liberals scandalized by the gross inequities in the financing of crumbling urban schools and suburban educational palaces. Most of the reform proposals died out, with the original hoopla boiling down to a new rigor in the schoolhouse. For kids, that translated into more homework, and tests, tests and more tests.

"Testing does take a lot of time but it's absolutely necessary," said Lisa Graham Keegan, the Arizona schools superintendent who has led the AIMS charge. The yearly Stanford 9 tests gauge progress from year to year, while AIMS, she believes, will ensure higher academic standards. "It feels like a lot of tests, but you need to know where you are."

Keegan put the new standards in place in 1996, replacing the "essential skills" instituted by her predecessor, Diane Bishop. Students were to undergo AIMS tests in third, fifth and eighth grades, and in high school. The standards were locked in when this year's sophomores were in seventh grade, and Penny says schools and students were duly warned of the tests to come in the year 2000.

"We wanted parents to start asking the schools, 'How are you preparing my child to meet the standards?' " Penny said. That didn't happen, though. When the practice test was sprung last year, a general uproar ensued among parents who'd never heard of it, kids who weren't prepared for it. "There were still schools and administrators," Penny said wonderingly, "who thought it would go away."

Right now, though, AIMS shows no signs of disappearing.

ADOLESCENT scorn for any new adult demand is to be expected, perhaps, but the Tucson students' objections to the AIMS test sum up succinctly what many thoughtful teachers have been saying.

Educators think the test should have been introduced more gradually and they're horrified that thousands of Arizonans could be deprived of diplomas even after slugging their way through high school for four years. They dislike the secrecy of the test -- the state releases only a few sample questions; the Arizona Republic has even sued the state to get copies of it, arguing that the exam is a public document. Many teachers see the test as quick fix unlikely to repair the state's recalcitrant educational inequities, and the troubling disparities in achievement between students from families at opposite ends of the economic spectrum.

And some teachers are disheartened that years of lofty talk about better education has dwindled down to the dispiriting idea that the measure of a student's knowledge is a score on a single standardized test.

Virginia Bohme, a 23-year teaching veteran who's devoted her entire career to Tucson High, has earned a rep as one of the best math teachers in town. I've seen her enlighten an honors geometry class on angles of elevation and depression with metaphors about movie stars who jump off cliffs -- and trace an angle with their buff bods. This year she teaches not only geometry but algebra II and advanced placement calculus. She loves teenagers and she loves math. ("People have lived fruitful lives for centuries without knowing some of this stuff -- but they could lead even more fruitful lives if they did.") Next year she'll head Tucson High's math department. She's no foe of testing, and like many good teachers she thinks education can be improved.

"For years we've allowed students to take up space," she said. "These students have floated without learningäI truly believe all children are capable of learning far more than we've given them. A part of me applauds the path we're taking to a higher-level educationäA test can be a positive thing if we do it correctly."

She believes it's political bullheadedness not to allow kids to use calculators on the math test, especially since sophisticated graphing calculators nowadays are indispensable tools for scientists and mathematicians. Likewise, she deplores the fact that the test doesn't examine kids' abilities on spreadsheets.

But her major objection to AIMS is that the math portion inappropriately tests every single high-school kid at too high a level.

It bothers her when U.S. standardized test scores are compared, unfavorably, to scores in other countries. In rigidly class-divided societies such as France, kids are separated at an early age between those going on to college and those going on to apprentice, say, in a bakery. Their national test scores reflect only the work of the elite college-bound. American scores, by contrast, mix in the scores of kids of all abilities and classes, because America has a commitment to giving every kid, rich or poor, a high-school education.

"I'm concerned. In other nations, there's no attempt to educate all students to that level. The wonderful thing about our country is that we educate all. To expect that all will attain the same level of abstraction is unrealistic."

Plus, the standards as written presuppose that all students come to high school prepared to do high-school math, she said, and the test was put into place before that actually happened. What will become of the student, Bohme wonders, who simply can't master the math and consequently loses out on a high-school diploma? It's a phenomenon of post-war America that we try to keep all kids in high school; in earlier years, working class students left to work in the factories or mines or railroads. Such students now are urged to stay in school, and many teachers have blasted the wisdom of giving what they consider a college-prep exam to every high-school kid in the state, college-bound or not.

Dr. Fred Stevenson, a University of Arizona math professor, argues along with Bohme that the math portion is too hard for a common test. Like her, he has no problem with the idea of a test.

"I'm a liberal guy, but I believe in standards. I've seen slippage since I went through high school. When my son went to Sabino High School, many of the seniors were off at noon. Kids were holding full-time jobs, getting cars. They were not taking school seriously."

Many such high schools grads land at the UA in need of remedial math -- "We'd like calculus to be the first class but there's no way" -- and Stevenson thinks a graduation test might make them buckle down in high school. "The bottom line is standards are slipping. We need a test but this test is bad. The AIMS test is BAD, in capital letters."

Stevenson came to this conclusion after conducting a detailed analysis of the AIMS math questions. He found the test to be at least as hard as the SAT college entrance exam. And he also discovered that the math portion requires far more math than Arizona currently requires of high schoolers.

"To pass, a student must take algebra I and II and geometry, and a class in finite math and probability would help," Stevenson said. That's four years of math in a state that now requires only two years of math for a diploma. So if you go by Stevenson's analysis -- and consider that he has been teaching university-level math for 29 years -- there's a clear disconnect between the state standard and the state test. Kids fulfilling their two-year math requirement by signing up for general math or consumer math in high school "have almost no chance of passing the AIMS test," he said.

"I met with Laura (Penny) and Lisa (Graham Keegan) a month ago. We talked for 90 minutesäI gave the stats to Lisa. She's a smart woman. But she's dug in her heels and said, 'We're gonna stick with this.' "

INDEED. LISA GRAHAM Keegan is a smart woman, an articulate Stanford grad who won the elected post of Arizona school superintendent back in 1994. In the years since she's become a conservative media darling, praised in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, noticed in The New York Times and practically nominated for sainthood in a recent Newsweek column by George Will. Conservatives like her "market choice" charter schools -- in which state money follows the child to the privately operated charter school of the parents' choice -- and they like her insistence on rigorous standards, including the AIMS test. Will proposes her for education secretary or even vice president should George W. Bush win the presidency in November.

Keegan said she knows many people find it "deeply ironic" for a free-market Republican like herself to be pushing for state standardization of education. But she draws a distinction between "centralization," which she deplores, and "standardization," which she embraces.

"We have a (state) constitutional requirement to set the standard," she said in a telephone interview. "But how they meet the standard is up to the individual schools."

Arizona critics darkly accuse Keegan of destabilizing the state's public school system for the sake of her own political career. The most cynical postulate that Keegan and company deliberately set the state standard at an unattainable level in order to use the predictably disastrous results to prove that public education -- and the despised teachers' unions -- are failures on a massive scale. It's not entirely a fantasy, they suspect, that the next step could be to junk public schools altogether and give public money to entrepreneurs to set up for-profit McSchools in every shopping center in the state. Private schools are exempt from the AIMS test, and some foresee private diploma mills springing up to accommodate the streams of future AIMS dropouts.

Most of the time Keegan speaks with astonishing directness for a politician but she sounds just like a candidate when asked about Will's nomination of her for higher office.

"I have an ambition to stay in education," she said. "I am a huge fan of serendipity. Things come up and you do them."

But when it comes to the AIMS test, Keegan is ready and eager with detailed rebuttals for each and every criticism. When Stevenson says that the test questions presuppose three years of math, she agrees. She thinks all students ought to take three years of high-school level math, starting in junior high.

"Fred is right. We need more math in high school. As a parent I would want four years of math for my childä. Algebra should start in eighth grade."

Under that scenario, students would be quit of geometry and algebra II by sophomore year, and relatively well positioned to meet the math standard on AIMS, if not to exceed it. She's already persuaded the state board of education to require every student to take math in ninth grade starting this fall, warding off the occasional ninth grade "math holiday." And she's been urging the board to up the high-school math requirement to three years.

Keegan disagrees fiercely with the idea that the test will widen social and economic disparities. In fact, she believes that the AIMS test promotes social equity, rather than undermining it. She acknowledges that "people who have social concerns are sincere," but she tends to think that such compassion does kids a disservice. A state standard universally applied sets the bar at the same height for the well-heeled kids in the Foothills and for the barrio kids at Tucson High.

"The world relies on math now," she declared. Math is a vital tool in an age of a high-tech jobs and diminishing unskilled jobs, she said; the more math everybody takes, the better.

"Who makes the decision that a child can't do algebra? These tend to be the poor kids, the ethnic minorities. We accept less. I can't accept that. We put poor kids in 'applied' math. The (higher level) classes are available, but who chooses whether you go in it?

"The child should not be asked whether (he or she) wants to take math. I have three kids. I know they'd say noäWhy is algebra an elective? It's meant to be a fundamental. 'Kids can't learn' becomes a reality. We're going to intervene earlier on. Make sure kids come across the baräIt's folklore that the dropout rate goes up when the challenge goes up."

She sympathizes, she said, with high-school teachers who get kids unprepared to take up algebra, but as the years go on the new standards should take care of that. The AIMS tests given at third, fifth and eighth grades will set off alarm bells if a kid is tumbling off the math track, and their problems can be addressed before high school.

Keegan disputes Stevenson's finding that the math test is just too hard. She said last year's results matched scores on the Stanford 9, a standardized test not particularly noted for its difficulty. "I don't believe that (AIMS) constitutes an SAT-like test. You do have material on the test that's not necessary to pass."

She defends the no-calculator rule, too, asserting that the instruments have been introduced too early. Softened up by calculators, children can no longer do simple computation, she said, and the high-school test looming ahead may well inspire them to master their long division and decimals.

While Keegan has thus far resisted attempts to make the test easier, she acknowledges there's some wiggle room. It's not likely that the state board will lower the passing score in math -- just how far would it have to drop before the test becomes meaningless? -- but the board members might consider allowing students to pass if they show marked improvement over their high-school career.

"The board could make adjustments in scores, but it probably (won't). We could look for adjustment over timeäDo you get an alternative diploma? That's not decided yet. The board doesn't know."

ENGLISH TEACHERS AROUND town have a different set of criticisms. Most are pleased that the test actually requires the writing of an essay, but they think many of last year's reading questions were poorly written. And they hate to think of all knowledge being boiled down to the correct bubble on a computer-generated test. Instead of developing kids' critical thinking skills, they worry that our current test-craziness could lead to a generation of docile citizens.

Dana Elmer, like Bohme, is a famously gifted teacher in the Old Pueblo. He has been teaching English and Western Civilization for 11 years at University High School, TUSD's college prep, winning more than one family to the elite school with his extraordinarily rich curriculum. He's been known to get 14-year-olds excitedly reciting Chaucer in the original, and thoughtfully pondering the deepest circles of Dante's Inferno. In fact, he's the polar opposite of the sort of talentless teacher who has students memorize facts from a textbook and regurgitate them endlessly on tests.

And he can't stand AIMS.

The idea behind testing, he said, is "you master a few facts and there's proof that you're educated. That leads to an insipid, lopsided education. It leaves nothing in the way of art or beauty. Teachers will become technicians."

The politicians pushing the test, he believes, "are well-intentioned but they're not teachers. They want to come up with a test that will show mastery, statistically provable. That eliminates everything I've striven for in 28 years as a teacher."

Elmer agrees that education is by and large a "shambles," but he considers AIMS to be a heavy-handed work born of political ambition.

"It was a political ploy by Lisa Graham Keegan, who wants to be governor. They're all politicians. They have the (legal) right, but not the expertise, to tell me what to teach.

"They cobbled the test too quickly. They started too soon with a good, high standard. It's like asking a high jumper to jump to his highest level before he's ready."

Elmer can't be accused of protesting AIMS from a position of weakness, either. UHS students had the highest AIMS scores in the state last year: 93 percent of its sophomores passed the math, 99 percent the reading test, 95 percent the writing -- no surprise in a school that admits only students who ace a competitive entrance exam. And other UHS teachers agree with him. Kris Tully, head of the English department, likewise fears a narrowing of the curriculum.

"It doesn't mean teachers don't support the idea of testing. We're spending weeks testing. It does interfere with curriculum. AIMS preparation in other schools has overtaken teaching. It's been heavy-handed in some schools."

In fact, a recent study by a pair of professors at the University of Texas and Rice University found that the Texas test was dumbing the kids down. Eighth graders drilled for years in reading short extracts and answering questions were found to be unable to read novels. They simply couldn't sustain the interest in a long piece of writing, even novels written for children several years younger than they.

That study, reported in a recent issue of the New Republic, has already been refuted, Keegan claimed. She's impatient with the idea that a test rules out creative teaching. Students learning in enriched, lively classrooms should have no trouble with testing.

"We test what's important to know," she said. "If you teach to the standard, the test takes care of itself."

To her mind, the test doesn't signal a return to back-to-basics education, as the Tucson High students fear. Graham believes that the arts make education better and she has the AIMS results to prove it. Arts charter schools in Phoenix and Flagstaff racked up far better test scores than the state average last year.

"I am a huge fan of arts and arts education, " she said. "All of the arts-based schools are blowing this thing out of the water."

But why the rush, before the schools have time to benefit from years of the standards?

It's human nature, Keegan said, to delay until you have to get serious. And nobody started paying any attention to AIMS until the practice test was given last year.

"The standards were in place in 1996," she pointed out. "If we grandfathered it in, nothing still would have happened until high schooläAt what point do we expect the kids to get serious?"

THE STUDENT OBJECTORS to AIMS are already pretty darn serious. Andrew Pappas, an 18-year-old Catalina Foothills senior, won't have to take the AIMS test himself, but he's protesting AIMS to better the state of education in the state.

"I feel I've gotten a terrific education, from really outstanding teachers. If the state truly wants to improve education, they should see to it that the best teachers are hired and that they're paid a good salary so they won't leave. A curriculum is only as strong as the teachers teaching it. They can improve all the standards they want, but if they don't have outstanding teachers teaching them, they're nowhere. "

Keegan said she regrets that her policies have been seen as anti-teacher.

"I know that the teachers believe I am out bashing teaching, but I believe far more in teachers than in any other part of the systemä.The majority of teachers do an incredible job." And she's well aware she's got to do something about the math teachers rushing out of the classroom for high-paying jobs in private industry, at the exact time that the state is upping its math standards. She proposes a high-paid "master teacher" career track to keep them in the schools. And she's hoping that the state will pour more money into the classrooms via the proposed $400 million sales tax, which so far has languished in the Legislature.

Meantime, she's betting that this year's AIMS test scores will improve on last year's, proving that her get-tough policies are beginning to work. Like everybody else in the state, parents, students, teachers and legislators, she's eagerly looking forward to the results, which ought to come some time in September.

"Wait until we get the second year of data," Keegan said. "We will have a serious conversation after the second set of test scores come in."

An AIMS protest organized by local high school students will take place at 3:45 p.m. Friday, April 28, in front of the state office building at 400 W. Congress St. at Granada.
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