The great charade - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

The great charade

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Posted: Saturday, May 17, 2008 9:30 pm | Updated: 8:59 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Arizona's students have finished this year's final round of AIMS testing. And it is time to deal with the charade AIMS has become. "Charade" is a strong word, but it is an accurate one when applied to this failed program.

A decade or so ago, Arizona chose to implement state standards and a series of tests to evaluate students and schools, culminating in the graduation tests given in high school. This was, in part, a response to the concern of businesses and universities about the glaring lack of reading, writing and math skills in younger employees and entering college students. Creating clear standards and holding students and schools accountable, the theory went, would lead to an improved education for Arizona's students.

Ten years later, is that the case? The short answer is, "Who knows?"

With all the manipulating of both the tests and the graduation requirements, no one can give a clear answer to that question.

But if you take a look at the schedule of classes for our universities and junior colleges, you'll find disturbing evidence: hundreds of remedial sections of math and English offered each semester.

As to the business community's perception of the AIMS results, apparently Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne and his Department of Education are incurious about businesses' views of their AIMS-tested employees.

It's beyond time, then, to reevaluate the testing program.

But why call it a charade? For a variety of reasons.

Not the least of which is how the Department of Education - with the help of the state Legislature and the state Board of Education - continues to move the goal posts. The passing scores for reading, writing and math have all been lowered significantly over the years, requiring around a 60 percent score to "meet the standards," the passing label on the tests. And still, thousands of seniors have been in danger of not graduating.

So the Legislature got into the act and created something called "AIMS Augmentation." a Rube Goldberg contraption that factored in all of a student's C or better grades to augment his or her AIMS scores. This now leads to a very small number of seniors actually not graduating because of AIMS. It also leads to students who do not have the skills to perform entry-level work or take entry-level college classes.

How did all that happen?

In part, poor planning, in part politics.

Horne has invested much in the AIMS program, so he is a defender of the status quo. And legislators, always wary of the next election, seem to find a way each election year to water down AIMS even more.

This year it is Rep. David Schapira, D-Tempe, a legislator who rescued seniors by reintroducing the AIMS augmentation that had died in December, saying that he knew of a straight-A student who could not pass the tests. His evidence suggests the other problem with the state of AIMS - that a student could have straight A's, have taken the tests four times, and still not passed might say much about that student's school and the system itself.

In essence, the education system in Arizona, as reinvented by AIMS and Tom Horne, is upside-down.

Here's why: While all schools are held accountable for how their students perform, the students themselves are only held accountable in the final three years of their education. That is, students can have mediocre or worse results on AIMS starting in third grade and still progress to high school. Why? Because the AIMS tests in elementary and junior high have no bearing on whether a student moves from one grade to the next.

But in high school: "Surprise! Now, kids, you have to pass to graduate." It's a cruel trick we play on them, even if they and their parents should have known for some time that their skills were lacking.

And what's Horne's response? Tutoring money - for juniors and seniors who haven't passed their AIMS tests. Too little, too late.

This tutoring program is a last-ditch triage for these poorly skilled students. But consider the logic of it: We wait until they get to their junior years, by which time many of their educational problems are intractable, and then the state provides tutoring. It's like a doctor who diagnoses heart disease and tells the patient, "Come back to me when you have your first heart attack."

So what should we do?

First, we need to provide tutoring money at earlier grades, using AIMS scores to identify those elementary students struggling with basic skills.

We need to provide schools with struggling students the time and money to design an effective remediation plan, particularly at the third-grade level. Now, we put them under the gun of "failing school" yet give them few resources from which to escape that label. Take the money the state provides high schools and give it to the students' parents to use for tutoring, whether it's private or through the schools (which is what the state now allows high school students).

We also should use AIMS scores and teacher recommendation to end social promotion. Far too many underprepared students still pass through our system. But having suggesting that, I'd argue we also need to provide remedial programs for those students. Simply repeating a grade is ineffective.

Finally, understanding that the current system is a charade, let's continue the augmentation of AIMS until the other two recommendations made here are systemic. And then set a standard for passing AIMS - and keep it.

These suggestions will take time and money. As an Arizona teacher for 33 years, I've been alarmed by the too-often lax standards I've seen, so I find myself a reluctant defender of the AIMS concept.

But until the concept and reality are the same, AIMS will continue to be an expensive charade our state can't afford.

Mike McClellan of Gilbert has taught in Arizona for 33 years, 31 of which in Mesa Public Schools.

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