May 2, 2005
Teenagers who walk in the doors of Ed Walker’s charter high school often read and do math at the ninth-grade level.
Just as often, though, their academic skills are at the fourth-grade level or below, said Walker, the principal of Skyline Technical High School in Ahwatukee Foothills.
The problem, Walker said, is that elementary and middle schools pass students from grade to grade whether they meet the state’s academic standards or not.
He said Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards might be a high-stakes graduation test in high school, but at the lower grades, it is just a test to measure teachers and schools.
Students lose nothing if they fail.
"The whole idea was flawed from the very beginning," Walker said. "If you have a student who fails AIMS in third, fifth and eighth grades, and they still get promoted to the next level, how are high schools supposed to catch them up?"
Some educators said AIMS has even made the problem of social promotion worse, because many high schools now enroll freshman in beginning algebra and sophomores in geometry whether the students are ready or not.
Schools do that because AIMS — as a sophomorelevel test that students first take at the end of their sophomore year — covers material through beginning algebra and geometry.
With AIMS still hanging in the balance as a graduation requirement starting in 2006, some talk has begun as to the next possible step in Arizona’s push for accountability.
HIGH STAKES FOR ELEMENTARY CHILDREN
Experts said one idea could be using AIMS as a high-stakes test at lower grade levels rather than waiting until high school, when students are already years behind.
Florida has already implemented such a plan.
Third-graders there must pass the state test to get to fourth grade.
And in Chicago, eighthgraders must pass a standardized test to prove they’re ready for high school. Often, the result for failing is summer school and a retaking of the test.
Many other students have been held back.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne has broached the subject in Arizona with his statewide teacher advisory committee.
While AIMS seeks to ensure social promotion doesn’t exist, he said the current system might work too late.
"Some teachers in schools have high standards, and the fact that students pass those courses mean they’re well prepared for life," Horne said. "But, unfortunately, there are other teachers that pass students that they shouldn’t, sometimes because of parental pressures."
FEEDBACK FROM THE EAST VALLEY
Sue Kaminskas, president of the Scottsdale Education Association, serves on Horne’s advisory board and asked Horne to provide details of the idea before she gives it a thumbs up or down.
"We want preventive medicine," she said. "We want kids to have the support they need. It’s only logical if you can get kids the support they need for the reading, the math -- the earlier the better."
But, she said, "if it’s just something that says, ‘Whoops, you have not made it, now we’re holding you back,’ that’s not sufficient."
Mesa parent Joan Bradley, whose children attend Entz Elementary School, already knows what she thinks about high-stakes testing for elementary school students.
She said it would just create more pressure on students and more pressure on schools to teach to the test.
"These tests create so much tension," Bradley said. "When you go into schools during AIMS testing, you can cut the tension with a knife. It creates so much pressure on the teachers, and they pass on that pressure to the kids."
But Bob Bernier, a math teacher at Scottsdale’s Saguaro High School, said earlier accountability measures for students could help push them to work harder in eighth grade and truly prepare for high school math.
"It’s something that perplexes teachers, that they’re not passing it," he said of the high school math test. "The AIMS test is easier than tests we give. We give a final exam, and the vast majority of kids pass the final exam."
Other educators said they were fiercely opposed to ideas that they said would simply frustrate students.
"I just think kids are tested to death right now," said Cindy Pesek, a secondgrade teacher at Entz.
Joe O’Reilly, executive director of student achievement support in the Mesa Unified School District, said research shows that if students make it to higher level classes such as second-year algebra, trigonometry or calculus by their senior year, the chances are about 100 percent they’ll pass the math portion of AIMS.
It’s less certain for kids who do the bare-minimum requirements of taking firstyear algebra and geometry, he said.