Ted Simons: Good evening, and welcome to "Horizon." I'm Ted Simons.
Ted Simons: The state department of education today released the results of the 2011 aims test. Here to tell us how Arizona students measured up is state superintendent of public instruction, John Huppenthal. Good to have you here, thanks for joining us.
John Huppenthal: Ted, it's always great to be here.
Ted Simons: Before we crunch some numbers here, your overall thoughts and impressions of what you saw from the results.
John Huppenthal: Very modest improvement in reading and math, not nearly what we need to do to meet of needs of our students. But headed in the right direction. And we saw that increasing the standard in writing resulted in a lower pass rate, but we think increasing that standard for writing skills is exactly what we need to do for the future of these kids.
Ted Simons: I want to get into that later, but first of all, who took the test?
John Huppenthal: Well, we are talking about third graders through high school, am the way through the senior year. And at the high school level, all the high school sophomores take it, or first-time test takers if they entered our school system at a higher level, and fewer students take it through their senior year in an attempt to pass it.
Ted Simons: Let's get to some numbers. We'll start with the reading results. It looks like we see an improvement.
John Huppenthal: We've seen -- since we adopt a phonics-based curriculum, we've seen a steady improvement over the years, when we saw that again just a couple percentage points. Right direction, but not nearly what we would hope for the future of our kids.
Ted Simons: 76% pass doesn't sound that great, except it was 73% a year ago. You want to see more.
John Huppenthal: We need to see more, and that's a standard that we're considering increasing, too.
Ted Simons: Let's look at the writing numbers. This one is not encouraging at all. But there's a reason for this, and let's try to figure out what's happening here?
John Huppenthal: Well, we brought some of our very best teachers together to look at our previous writing standard, and they said, look, this doesn't cut the grade, so we've dramatically increased the writing standard. And that's -- that was passed by the state board, and we saw as a result significant reduction in the number of students that passed it. But still, what we're trying to do here is critically important. These writing skills are exactly what our kids need in the 21st century.
Ted Simons: Was raising that cut -- first, you said you talked to teachers about this. Which teachers?
John Huppenthal: Well, we brought in some of our very best teachers in the writing area, and they took a look at what kids need to do, what standards need to be in place for them to do well as they move into the college and career readiness, and that standard was significantly increased this year.
John Huppenthal: Was a mistake to raise it knowing so many kids haven fallen off?
John Huppenthal: Absolutely not. That's now a bar, we now have that benchmark, and we know that a little less than 60%, more than 50% passed it, so now it's a striving point.
Ted Simons: Let's look at the math numbers. We see a slight increase there, but nothing too exciting, but it could have gone the other direction.
John Huppenthal: Well, it's headed in the right direction, but not nearly enough. And the fundamental problem that we have, and this is a national problem, you get to the eighth grade, have you almost 70% of your kids that don't know fractions. So we need to create an educational system in which kids mathematically can move up to the higher level skills.
Ted Simons: 59% passing is obviously -- that's not going to cut it. That’s not good. How many -- what is the percentile of kids who don't know fractions in high school?
John Huppenthal: Well, I'm talking about national data. You have a reasonably difficult fraction problem, and you have in the neighborhood of 70% of the kids who can't -- we see that in national tests. That's a fundamental problem with all of education nationwide, to get kids on a path, and that's part of why we move into these coalitions of states that are trying to set standards and to get a consensus on what you need to do to get these math skills.
Ted Simons: Before we talk about this new test that's coming in 2015, as far as the results we're seeing now, do we know how many kids will not be able to graduate?
John Huppenthal: We don't know that data. The reason is it's not -- we know -- we have a rough estimate for the percentage of kids who didn't pass the test, but they have -- they can augment that with good grades, As in their classes, and still pass. So we don't have all that data yet.
Ted Simons: Do you like that idea, augmenting the aims test scores with other things?
John Huppenthal: Very much so. I've always felt for a number of years, we studied policies in other states and other countries, and what's happened when you get a test score alone, or class work alone, it doesn't work well. It's a mixture that makes best policy. So -- and I think we moved augmentation from way too high to just the right amount. 5% is the right mix, and so we're very comfortable with our current policy.
Ted Simons: You refer to this new test or states getting together to get national standard going, we have a national exam coming to replace I guess our state exam in 2015. I keep hearing this is going to be a tougher exam or at least the cut scores will be higher than what we're used to now. Are we ready for this?
John Huppenthal: Well, we have a number of policy challenges that are going to go through. We have a consortium, I wouldn't call it a national test, it's 27 states. And the superintendents in those states are the ones who are getting together and doing the work. It's going to be a high quality test. I think it's going to be a little more accurate at the upper and lower end for our advanced students, so we'll be able to more accurately track academic gains at the upper level and lower level, which is critically important. But as far as being a tougher test, a tougher test is where the state board of education and the legislature set the hurdle. Whether you're measuring witness a new test or the AIMS, that's not necessarily going to decide whether it's tougher or not. It's going to be policy that decides.
Ted Simons: Is the political will there to set that bar, that hurdle high enough to make a difference?
John Huppenthal: Well, to be blunt about it, when I was in the legislature it was all we could do to hold the standard at that level. There was a lot of political pressure to do away with the standard completely. So it's not clear to me. I'm not that uncomfortable with where our standard is set right now. I'd like to have it a couple -- a little bit higher, but we're in the ballpark. That's a minimum standard, and we want to be careful about not taking wayR away opportunity for youth who need that diploma to get into the armed force and other occupations.
Ted Simons: All right superintendent, good to have you here, thanks for joining us.
John Huppenthal: Great to be here.