This year’s redesign of the state’s high school graduation test was the winning ticket for many of Arizona’s students as they passed AIMS in record numbers.
But it was minority students who seemingly hit the jackpot.
Compared with 2004, this year’s scores for Hispanic,
black and American Indian sophomores on Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards improved more than those for their Asian and Caucasian peers.
But without an equivalent comparison to previous tests, the new AIMS results blur whether or not the gains can be pinpointed to academic strides.
"I don’t believe this is the impact of the changed testing," said State Superinten- dent of Public Instruction Tom Horne. "I think what we are observing is the impact of different kinds of accountability, including the test on the academic atmosphere in the classroom."
Arizona’s students are not the exception for the diminished divide.
U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said in a news release that nationally "the achievement gap that has persisted for decades in the younger years between minorities and whites has shrunk to its smallest size in history."
Arizona’s students attempt the reading, writing and mathematics portions of AIMS for the first time in the spring of their sophomore year.
When the class of 2006 — the first students required to pass the exam to graduate — took the test last year, about 25 percent of Hispanic, black and American Indian students passed the math portion.
A revamped test and scoring system this year slid more than half of the Hispanic, black and American Indian students in the class of 2007 beyond the passing mark in math.
Throughout Mesa, Chandler, Gilbert, Paradise Valley, Scottsdale and Tempe, 28 percent more Asian and 36 percent more white students passed the math portion this year.
There was a 100 percent increase in Hispanic, black and American Indian students passing that same portion.
In the Scottsdale Unified School District, Ildi Laczko-Kerr, director of student information management, said shrinking an achievement gap between ethnic subgroups has been a focus of the district for a long time, but even more so in the wake of the No Child Left Behind Act. The federal law requires schools to ensure that all students — broken down by ethnic groups, English-language learners, special education, poor children, boys and girls — meet academic standards.
To advance Arizona’s schools toward the 2014 federal deadline for all students’ proficiency in math and reading, the state funneled $780,000 to AIMS tutoring for sophomores this year. The help was available to all students — not just minorities.
The percentage of students passing the exam increased this year in all subjects. East Valley students averaged between a 10 percent to 52 percent increase in passing grades for reading this year. The passing rate for the writing portion increased between 9 percent and 24 percent. The highest increases came from Hispanic students.
However, education analysts are skeptical that the increased focus on academics is what closed the gap.
"We see this year after year," said Vicki Murray, director of education policy for the Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank. "After the massive realignment, those failure rates are pretty much halved."
Murray said the state test has changed six times in six years.
"My conclusion is that at this rate, everyone will be passing, but will anyone be learning? And AIMS will not be able to tell us that," Murray said.
The new test isn’t the only factor hindering the true measure of academic progress — East Valley population growth affected the results by adding scores to smaller, minority student populations in all districts.
Joe O’Reilly, executive director for student achievement support for the Mesa Unified School District, said beginning with the new test, districts will have a foundation to measure students’ growth — as long the test doesn’t change.
"I have to assume they are not going to change the test for at least a few years," he said. "But that would be a real problem. We’ve been looking forward to having data on individual student growth and this past year has been an anomaly in our achievement system."