Horizon, Host: Ted Simons

August 16, 2006


Host: Michael Grant

AIMS Test


  • The Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards (AIMS) is designed to provide educators with information about studentsí knowledge and understanding of various subjects, including math, reading and writing. While many support such standardized testing programs, others say the AIMS test is neither fair nor accurate in determining a student's potential. James Middleton, Division Director of Curriculum and Instruction at ASU College of Education and David Berliner, Regents Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at ASU College of Education will discuss the issue.
Guests:
  • James Middleton - division director of curriculum and instruction, ASU College of Education
Category: Education

View Transcript
Michael Grant:
Tonight on Horizon, an education special. A look at Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards test. For over six years the department of education has been administering the AIMS test to grade school and high school students to see if they have met the state's expectation. The mandated exam has been a topic of contention among education experts, leaders, legislators and parents since its inception. Tonight we ask the experts is the AIMS test an effective means of measuring a student's academic achievement. Then we'll hear from students themselves, two valley high school seniors will share their concerns and thoughts about the exam used to determine if they're ready to go to college. That's all next on Horizon.

Announcer:
Horizon is made possible by contributions from the friends of eight, members of your Arizona PBS station. Thank you.

Michael Grant:
Good evening. Welcome to Horizon. I'm Michael Grant. From the moment the AIMS test was administered to Arizona students, educational leaders and experts as well as parents have been at odds about the effectiveness of the system. Some education researchers say the aptitude-like test is an effective system for determining a student's understanding of core subjects. Others say it is too arbitrary. Although the numbers seem to show students improving their AIMS test scores there are many who disagree with its utility. Joining us tonight to talk about the subject are James Middleton. He is the division director of curriculum and instruction at the ASU College of Education. And David Berliner, regents professor of the Educational Leadership and Policy Studies also at the ASU College of Ed. Gentlemen, welcome to the program.

>>Thank you.

>>Thank you.

Michael Grant:
James, has this become much eh do about nothing? I mean, we got to the end game here this summer. The moment of truth I think at bottom only a few hundred students failed in one way or another to clear the AIMS hurdle. Should we give up? This thing and just move on to something else?

James A. Middleton:
Well, I think it's probably a good idea to change the way in which the AIMS test is developed, delivered, assessed and then of course the implications of that afterwards. I don't think it's much a do about nothing. One is since I'm a taxpayer this is tens of millions of dollars that's spent on a test that doesn't measure what it was intended to measure at the beginning. And second, that puts undue stress both on students and on the education system. And the outcomes are not only about -- because the AIMS is not just a high school exit exam, it's the entire system of high stakes testing starting at grade 2 up through grade 11.

Michael Grant:
Is that an argument, though, against how we do it as opposed to why we do it or the concept of the AIMS test?

James A. Middleton:
Yeah. I am more concerned about the -- the nature of the test, how it's implemented and the ways in which it's used, not so much about testing in and of it self. I think testing is actually very useful. The national assessment of education process is very useful for us to take a look at where we as an education system in the nation are doing well, where we are failing children and where we can put resources to bolster that education system. And I think that a system in Arizona can help us do that. Right now we don't have that kind of a system.

Michael Grant:
David --

David Berliner:
May I answer the first question?

Michael Grant:
Let me ask you this one then you can rotate back to the first one.

David Berliner:
Okay.

Michael Grant:
The concept of AIMS was I think fairly simple. Let's design a curriculum that we think all students should be possessed of on certain core subjects. Let's figure out what we think they should learn. And then once we've done that, let's design a test that will figure out whether or not they've accomplished that for two reasons. Both to figure out whether or not the student is ready to move on, and number two whether or not the education system is delivering the curriculum that we designed. Anything flawed about that concept?

David Berliner:
No. But you left out the most important thing which the attachment of high stakes to it which is to use a giant club to beat people into submission for that curriculum. There's nothing wrong with standards or assessment. What's wrong with our system -- and it comes from no child left behind at the federal level as well as the state implementation of it is the high stakes that are attached to it. You said only a few hundred a maybe 1,000 didn't pass this year. You left out the humiliation of people who had to take a test in English five times to then get augmented. You've left out the hundreds if not thousands who have dropped out between 9th grade and 12th grade and are going to be a burden on society because they can't pass the test. You've left out the complete miss trust in teacher judgment and what that does to a profession by saying that teachers don't count for anything, only the test counts. So there are costs to this system because it's high stakes. Not the logic of it.

Michael Grant:
Why would I be saying the teacher counts for nothing if I'm trying to figure out if in fact the teacher has imparted a certain level of knowledge that we ask the teacher to -- again that's not an issue with the concept.

David Berliner:
It is. [overlapping speakers]

James A. Middleton:
You can't make the at tuition of student's failure to a particular teacher in the 11th grade. Because that student has had many teachers beginning of course with parents and society and continuing through first grade second grade third grade all the way up. And there's a cumulative effect of the experiences that they have.

Michael Grant:
Isn't that why we administer it though at different grade levels to at least to start to sort that out? Were we having a problem at the elementary level, were we having a problem at the high school level, the middle grades, whatever the case may be?

James A. Middleton:
Yes. But we really don't measure longitudinally or assess longitudinally. So following a child and looking at where they stand in relation to a particular to a set of standards is a very different kind of assessment than the current type of assessment which is really an aptitude test in its design.

Michael Grant:
Would you make the same arguments against the act, the sat, the variety of other test instruments that we routinely administer?

David Berliner:
That's an irrelevant argument. We're talking about the Arizona system which has standards and tests and then holds at the 11th grade a kid back -- at the 11th grade a kid back without knowing what the kid's evidence is.

Michael Grant:
What if we said if you can't pass the act you can't graduate from high school? Would you have the same argument?

David Berliner:
That does not match the Arizona standards.

Michael Grant:
The sat?

David Berliner:
The sat is an aptitude test. Everyone knows that.

Michael Grant:
Is this an argument against testing period?

David Berliner:
No. There's information from act and sat that colleges use because we know that they predict reasonable well how you'll do the first year maybe. They don't predict second and third year well at all or fourth year grades at all and nothing to do with how you'll do in life. They are poor predictors. They predict reasonably well the first year. If you have a lot of kids who apply, use these to select. But that's not what the AIMS is doing.

Michael Grant:
James, what about -- I think you're still there but you don't necessarily disagree with the concept. What about the second aspect of the concept which was we want the high school diploma to say something to somebody at the next level, whatever that may be. The work level, the college level, that kind of thing. Is there a merit to when you present that piece of paper someone says, okay. I've got assurance that you've got a certain core understanding of reading, writing and math?

James A. Middleton:
I see that as being fundamentally what the diploma is supposed to do is to say that you've had certain experiences that we feel are important for an informed citizenry and you've engaged in those experiences, mathematics, science, social studies, civics, language arts and to a degree that you can be -- that you can enter into society, get a good job, engage in our economic and social enterprise at a high enough level to have a happy, successful life. Now, to place the onus of all of that or the lack thereof foolish. It's in fact wrong thinking. However if we think about multiple measures -- and we could have assessments of many kinds -- the best kind is the kind that feeds information directly back to the teacher so that teacher can use that information to present appropriate material to the student at the right time to move them from one level of knowledge to the next level of knowledge. That's useful.

Michael Grant:
David, didn't we attempt to address that subject, though, when we accelerated the return of results? I recall a couple, three years ago. One of the problems was that teachers weren't getting the results as I recall until like October or so. Got it to them earlier so they could say, all right. It's clear that this kid is having a problem.

David Berliner:
The test is still administered in April the results come back just about the end of the semester or in the summer. And for that teacher for those kids they're useless. Absolutely useless.

Michael Grant:
But at least it's better position for the next grade level.

David Berliner:
You have two different kids in your class next year. Two emotionally disturbed kids or special ed. kids and the whole dynamics of that class is completely changed.

Michael Grant:
Let's say you're moving from third grade to fourth grade. Shouldn't it give the fourth grade teacher an indication of, okay, then I need to focus on this with this particular student.

David Berliner:
I want to get a point. In we're testing at the second great in this state and it's not required by the no child left behind act. And we have evidence from studies at our own institution that say second grade teachers can predict the rank order of their kids as well as the AIMS test or the test we use at second grade. Why are we punishing second graders, getting them anxious, having them throw up, putting their schools and teaches in the tizzy when the teacher can rank order every kid and say here's who needs help and who doesn't. Which is what the test is supposed to do. Why are they doing that?

Michael Grant:
We administer tests routinely. What make AIMS different? But you're not going to flunk high school in second grade. I mean, routinely we've been administering tests for a long time.

James A. Middleton:
It's not the stakes for the individual child in the second grade through 9th grade. The stakes are for the teacher because we have a system of accountability that holds teachers, schools and districts accountable for test scores. Not for the -- for the wide variety of good they do, which includes some test scores which includes other assessments of where they take a student from where a student comes to -- and provide the value added of the education to the student. We don't actually measure that with AIMS. That's not measured. And we hold teachers accountable for cohort effects which are when each classroom of students is a different social system and some classes are very easy to teach, they've got high energy, they come with great reading backgrounds. They start high. The teacher gets a high -- her class will have a high overall AIMS score. The teacher looks like a brilliant teacher. The teacher may not have done anything to augment the student's knowledge. So we really have to look at a larger, more complex system of who's in the classroom at the time because we have a high mobility rate of children moving from classroom to classroom, school to school, district to district. And to hold a teacher accountable for children that came in the mid-year that she didn't teach, to hold a school accountable for children that came from another school or another district and to hold a district accountable for a whole maybe 30\% of the students to 40\% of the students in some of the districts in Phoenix who are new every year, that's an untenable argument.

Michael Grant:
To what extent does augmentation -- augmentation address -- that was a new term for me so we need to briefly explain it. It's you can use grades to boost your score.

David Berliner:
Up until augmentation the state was being mean in saying a single test determines a lot about your life. With augmentation it says the test is important and we'll look at other things. The state of Wyoming has what they call a body of evidence notion in which if the kid fails the test the teachers and school get together, put together a portfolio and make a decision about whether the kid should be advanced and get a degree or not based on a variety of evidence. Would you like your life judged on one broadcast? Come on, Michael. That's what we were doing until augmentation.

Michael Grant:
I don't know that it would be one broadcast. But I think you could put together -- we're constantly judged on a variety of things are we not?

David Berliner:
That's the point. That's why augmentation is good and I'm glad we put it in, finally.

Michael Grant:
Can we design the right test in your opinion?

James A. Middleton:
Oh, yeah.

James A. Middleton:
I think you design the appropriate assessment system of which there may be a good criterion-referenced test which AIMS is supposed to be but in fact isn't. There also needs to be a test that is administered on a regular basis for assessments that teachers can use in the natural flow of teaching to help this teacher at this time say, okay. Juan here is having a little bit of difficulty understanding factors and multiples. And he's got that difficulty. He's okay here. So what I'm going to do is I'm going to provide this task for Juan to bring him to this next level. That's the level of assessment that's most important.

Michael Grant:
If you designed the right test would you make it a graduation requirement or not?

James A. Middleton:
That's a good question. I think David and I disagree slightly on the nature of the stakes. I think the test, if it's designed properly with enough -- that has enough indices, I think it's possible but the problem is I think that test would be too expensive.

Michael Grant:
James Middleton thank you very much for joining us. David Berliner our thanks to you as well.

David Berliner:
Thank you.

Michael Grant:
It used to be that words like math, social studies or English would make students cringe but today it seems like words "AIMS test" are what make them nervous. To help with the pressure Arizona schools review lessons for weeks in advance in preparation for the AIMS test which is administered in May of every year. Arizona department of education's 2006 AIMS test results showing that in overall average Arizona students proficiency increased from 56\% to about 70\%. Of course the biggest change this year was high school seniors had to pass the AIMS test in order to graduate. After the 2006 exam results were released it showed only several hundred seniors had to retake the exam and were forced to skip the graduation ceremony. So what goes through a student's mind when preparing for the AIMS test? And how anxious are high school seniors about passing that test? Here tonight to share with us their thoughts and concerns about the AIMS test are high school seniors Kayla Kesling of camel back high school, Toni Bonsy of Chandler high school and Sarah Lawrence. Sarah is a counselor at camel back high school. Welcome to all of you. So Toni, what goes through a student's mind when preparing for the AIMS test?

Toni Bonsy:
Well, Mike, what went through my mind was that I was very nervous at first because all I ever heard about the AIMS test was from my teachers and they kept saying you have to pass you have to pass. You don't graduate if you -- but I talked to my friend and they said it would be easy. As long as you concentrate and study you'll be fine. Then I went from nervousness to complete confidence.

Michael Grant:
Incidentally you passed it so you did okay.

Toni Bonsy:
I did fine, yeah.

Michael Grant:
Let's see. Six years. I'm trying to do fast math here which I'm terrible at. Had you taken AIMS 8th grade I would assume?

Toni Bonsy:
No, actually I didn't.

Michael Grant:
Weren't in the system?

Toni Bonsy:
I wasn't in the system, yeah.

Michael Grant:
Okay. How about you, Kayla? Had you gone through the earlier stages of AIMS?

Kayla Kesling:
I had been taking AIMS since third grade. Either third or fourth grade.

Michael Grant:
Somewhere in there.

Kayla Kesling:
Yeah.

Michael Grant:
Okay. So what went through your mind on it?

Kayla Kesling:
Well, as I'd been taking it for so many years I knew what the test was like, I knew I would be able to hand it will with no problem. So it wasn't a big deal to me. But it was to me kind of ridiculous the hype that they were putting on the AIMS test.

Michael Grant:
The high stakes aspect of it? Well, I mean, obviously focused on your graduating year.

Kayla Kesling:
Yes.

Michael Grant:
Now, since you've had some longitudinal experience, I mean I realize obviously the test will change through those.

Kayla Kesling:
Yes.

Michael Grant:
But is it the same basic format as you move through the grade levels? Do you look at it in high school and say, okay. Well, this is the same basic -- even though it's testing on different levels of information?

Kayla Kesling:
Oh, yeah. It's the same format, the same type of questions with different information in them. But it's the same way to answer it and the same way to read the questions and know how to answer it.


Michael Grant:
From a counsel or's standpoint, you get a lot of nervous breakdowns in your office over the AIMS test or not?

Sarah Lawrence:
Not a lot of nervous breakdowns in the office. A lot of students express a lot of concern about whether or not they're ready. A lot of students who are coming to us at such a wide array of ability and concern whether or not they're going to be able to achieve the same standard that students that have been working on the process for such a long time are able to achieve.

Michael Grant:
Slightly different question, do you get a lot of nervous breakdowns by teachers in your office worried about AIMS test results?

Sarah Lawrence:
No. We have some very, very good teachers at our school. And they know that they're doing their job. Their concerns again are not the students that they've been working with that have been in the system for a long time. It's students that come in with limited experience in education and are expected in a very short time to graduate from -- and pass the AIMS that other students have had their entire lives to prepare for.

Michael Grant:
Tony, Kayla offered her feeling that there was too much emphasis placed on the test. Do you think so or not?

Toni Bonsy:
Absolutely. I agree. I don't believe that a test should alter your life. Because there are so many circumstances that can play into you that effect your test-taking ability. For instance, if you -- say there's a fight in the family or something like that, there's some trouble in your family, that can effect you, you know, while you're taking the test you'll be concentrating on what's happening inside your family instead of what's going on in the test. And that can really hurt you while you're taking the test.

Kayla Kesling:
Not only that but some people in general are just bad test takers. They just don't know how to take -- to read the question and answer it appropriately. They just can't do it. Something that they're not capable of doing. However, they can be great students and have straight A's all through their education.

Michael Grant:
Now, do we solve part of that by allowing the grades to be a weighting element on -- in combination with how you did on the AIMS test?

Kayla Kesling:
I don't think the AIMS should be any part of whether or not you graduate. Your grades, how you do in class, how well -- how much effort you put into your work is what should say whether or not you are a good student, whether or not you are a good person, and you have learned everything you need to learn to go on to the next educational level.

Michael Grant:
Tony, do you feel the same way about the sat test? It will play a very critical role in whether or not you can go to a university of your choice.

Toni Bonsy:
I do. I think -- I understand the SAT's are important. But same concept with the -- same concept with the AIMS test. It's one test. It shouldn't control your life.

Sarah Lawrence:
And the institutions of higher learning are mirroring that by providing for a holistic review with addressing who gets scholarships or who gets into a specific university. They're not just looking at sat scores because not everybody does well on a sat score and that doesn't mean they're not going to be a great college student. It means they're able to take the standardized test that they do well on standardized tests. That is a skill. But does that measure whether or not the school is performing or not performing? And I think that's the bigger question.

Toni Bonsy:
For instance like if you're doing a science experiment you wouldn't just take one sample of data to make your conclusion. You'd take several examples and experiments to form your conclusion about a certain subject. You just can't take one element.

Michael Grant:
Don't we, though, test multiple times? Don't we test freshman year, sophomore year, junior year, senior year? You have a number of shots at it. I think we may be slightly mis-portraying it. You get a number of shots at the test, do you not?

Michael Grant:
Sure. But if you don't do well on standardized tests, no matter how many times you -- you're setting up that students to fail over and over again and then you're holding the school and district accountable for whether or not your students are progressing. And it diminishes the role of the teacher.

Michael Grant:
I guess one of the problems I'm having with this discussion, is that recent criticisms of AIMS is that it has been dumbed-down so substantially that nobody should sweet bullets about it and it certainly is not posing a problem for students, and the results would seem to indicate that. We only had about 1,000 students or so that failed to make the mark.

Kayla Kesling:
It's not true. It is a difficult test. I took it. There were problems I didn't know how to do. There were questions that I didn't know how to answer. And it is a difficult test. But I could still take it and feel that I could do well on it.

Michael Grant:
Is it a difficult test? Because there's a lot of people who think that it's not.

Sarah Lawrence:
Have you taken it?

Michael Grant:
You know, actually early on in it I did.

Sarah Lawrence:
How did you perform?

Michael Grant:
Well, actually for an old guy I did okay. I took a portion.

Sarah Lawrence:
Well with the variety of life experiences that you've had and the constant learning curve that you've had from your life.

Michael Grant:
Trust me. I'm a long way from algebra.

Sarah Lawrence:
Me as well. I don't believe I would have done well on the math portion of the AIMS.

Toni Bonsy:
I think it's not necessarily -- the material that you're taking the test is difficult but what's difficult is the pressure that's on this test. That's what makes it hard is the pressure. Not necessarily the material. There is some difficult material but the pressure.

Kayla Kesling:
It's the fact that teachers spend their whole year teaching you things about -- to take this test. They don't teach you this curriculum they think you need to know. They teach you what you need to know to pass the test.

Michael Grant:
We have run out of time. Kayla, thank you for joining us.

Kayla Kesling:
Thank you.

Michael Grant:
Congratulations on passing the test.

Kayla Kesling:
Thank you.

Michael Grant:
Toni, thank you as well and Sarah Bonsy thank you as well.

Michael Grant:
If you'd like a transcript of this show or future information about other shows go to azPBS.org. Click on that. Now find out what's going on tomorrow.

Mike Sauceda:
This weekend thousands of people will be taking the first public tours of the new Cardinals stadium. We'll take you on a video tour of the new facility. Speaking of new facilities the downtown ASU campus is open for business. Learn more about it Thursday at 7 on Channel 8's Horizon program.

Michael Grant:
After Horizon please stay tuned for Horizonte when George Gascon new city of Mesa police chief will talk about his role. Thank you for joining us this evening. I'm Michael Grant. Have a great one. Good night.

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