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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

“Ready, AIMS, require”

Next month marks the beginning of the testing period for the AIMS exam, Arizona’s high school exit test, and students across the state will be subjected to a barrage of general knowledge questions which, as a body, nominally represent the whole of the Arizona curriculum. But here’s a question for the Arizona Department of Education: Why require a test that has no clear purpose, reduces standards of education, is biased against minorities and has an astronomical cost for a negligible return?

AIMS (a contrived acronym with the cumbersome title of “”Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards””) was first administered in the late 1990s amid hand-wringing (not necessarily unjustified) about the state of national elementary and secondary education systems. Motivated by federal funding promised to states that create educational accountability tests, 26 states, including Arizona, have established high school exit exams to evaluate students’ knowledge. But, as noted in a recent New York Times article (“”As School Exit Tests Prove Tough, States Ease Standards,”” Jan. 11) it is doubtful that these tests serve any useful purpose.

AIMS is no exception to the eroding standards which have plagued similar tests nationwide. Arizona’s high school class of 2006, the first class required to pass AIMS in order to receive diplomas, saw the passing grade lowered from 71 to 60 percent correct in the math section, and 72 to 59 percent in the reading section, according to an Arizona Republic article (“”State deems failing grades good enough to pass AIMS,”” May 13, 2005). The passing grade is not a fixed percentage from year to year, but rather derived from a scale based on the test’s perceived difficulty. The passing grades for the 2009 AIMS test, calculated from raw score data found on the Arizona Department of Education Web site, were 57 percent for reading, 58 percent for math and 65 percent for the new science portion (introduced in 2008, which is not a graduation requirement). These are less than ambitious goals —and impossible to evaluate against previous tests, as the difficulty of the test changes from year to year (trending, unsurprisingly, downward).

Additionally, such standardized tests have been accused of systemic bias against poor and minority students. As reported in another Republic article (“”Minorities score low on AIMS,”” April 22, 2005), a study conducted by Arizona’s state universities found that though “”65 percent of White students have passed the math section, twice the percentage of African-American and Hispanic students. Only about one out of four Native American students have passed the math section.””

Rather than suffer the consequences — political and financial — of admitting that their educational systems are failing, many states have elected to lower the passing standards for their exams. John Robert Warren, an exit-exams expert quoted in the Times article, said that “”The exams are just challenging enough to reduce the graduation rate…but not challenging enough to have measurable consequences for how much students learn or for how prepared they are for life after high school.”” That is to say, by administering a test such as the AIMS, instead of enforcing “”high standards”” Arizona schools make a ceremonial sacrifice of their most disenfranchised students. The school system then releases the incompetent remainder out into the world or even into fine institutions such as the UA — explaining in part, among other things, the state of our general education program.

Such exit exams are not only unreliable for student evaluation and standards enforcement, but very expensive. A press release dated June 1, 2009 from Pearson Education, the company which designs the AIMS test, reports that “”the new (2009) contract is valued at approximately $11.8 million through June 2010, after which time it is annually renewable through June 2014… bringing the total potential contract value to $68.2 million over a maximum five-year term.”” This figure includes only the cost of purchasing the test. The 2009 state budget provides about $10 million under the general heading “”Achievement Testing,”” and predicts an additional $5.9 million in federal assistance under the No Child Left Behind Act.

Instead of spending such an exorbitant amount in tests that arouse widespread suspicion, both federal and state money would be better spent improving the actual institutions of elementary and secondary education. The AIMS test and its ilk do not only leech funding from real education but actually damage it, encouraging teachers and administrators to “”teach to the test”” rather than impart necessary knowledge and skills, in order to secure federal funding. Arizona needs to provide an actual education, not a test designed to deceive, inveigle and obfuscate.

— Ben Harper is a graduate of the Arizona public school system, and (several inspirational teachers excepted) probably could have done just as well if he had fished his GED out of a box of Cracker Jacks. He can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.

 

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