'We Must Not Lose Our Vision To Improve Student Achievement'

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by Lisa Graham Keegan

state superintendent of public instruction

After two administrations of the high school AIMS test, we are now aware that student achievement levels are not where we would like them to be. While the results are disappointing, they also provide us with invaluable information about the need to strengthen curriculum and instruction in our schools.

As we continue to press schools to teach Arizona's Academic Standards to all students, we must also confront the reality that some students have not been taught the material on AIMS. Was it fair to hold students to a graduation requirement and make them bear the consequences of our failure as a system? Would our current graduation timeline penalize students for what we adults had neglected to do?

With these questions in mind, I recommended the state Board of Education seek input from schools, communities and business groups regarding AIMS and the timeline for its use as a graduation requirement. With the board's approval, we have moved full speed ahead, contacting thousands of schools and organizations to request their ideas and comments.

Unfortunately, this request has been misconstrued by some to be a retreat from our support for the Arizona Academic Standards, AIMS and our belief that all student can and will learn the standards. Others have concluded that AIMS is going away and students will not need to learn the state standards or demonstrate competency on those standards. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Let me be clear the requirement for students to take AIMS remains. High school students will take AIMS for the first time as sophomores and continue to take the reading, writing and math sections of AIMS until they demonstrate proficiency. AIMS will also be administered to all students in third-, fifth- and eighth-grade. The question is not whether to continue the test, but at what point a graduation requirement becomes appropriate.

Currently, members of the Class of 2002 are required to meet the standard in reading and writing in order to receive a high school diploma. In spring 2000, 68 percent of our sophomores met or exceeded the standard in reading; under new performance standards set by the state board in November, 56 percent of sophomores met or exceeded the standard in writing. Since this was their first opportunity to take AIMS, we are confident most students will be able to meet the standard by the end of their senior year.

Clearly we have a different issue with mathematics. Following the first two administrations of AIMS mathematics at the high school level, it became evident that we needed to be more specific and hone in on core mathematics standards and concepts for our teachers and students.

We responded by creating a math task force to identify key concepts within our standards concepts that all students need to know and be able to do in basic algebra, geometry, number sense, data analysis, measurement and logic. Using this blueprint, teachers constructed mathematics test items that were field-tested in fall 2000. This revised AIMS mathematics test will be given for the first time on April 30 and will become a graduation requirement for the class of 2004.

One of my greatest concerns with this timeline for mathematics is the information we gathered from our eighth-grade AIMS last spring. Only 16 percent of our eighth-graders met or exceeded the standard on the AIMS mathematics test.

These data tell us we have a great need to raise academic expectations in our middle schools, especially in mathematics. Clearly some students are being tracked into low-level math classes in our middle schools, closing doors to them in the future. Again, it is important to recognize that until we implemented AIMS, we had no way to identify, much less abandon, this practice.

I continually get support for AIMS from teachers, principals, superintendents and parents who applaud the fact that they now know how students and schools are performing on the academic standards. Teachers tell me the standards are improving instruction and learning in their classrooms, and their students are more academically focused as a result of AIMS.

Achievement data on both the Stanford 9 and AIMS support these observations. Student achievement is improving as a result of our focus on academics.

Knowing this, the dilemma becomes how we move the graduation date while maintaining pressure on the system for improved performance. We may relax the current timeline, but we cannot afford to relax our expectation of academic excellence for all students. It is critical that local school systems take ownership of their AIMS data and student performance. The leaders of those systems, including principals, superintendents and governing boards, must be responsible for how their schools are performing.

In the public dialogue about AIMS we must not lose our vision to improve student achievement for all Arizona children. That is the bottom line. It is not acceptable that we have students entering our high schools not prepared to do high school work. Nor is it acceptable that we have many students graduating from our high schools who cannot read and comprehend simple passages, write a two-page persuasive essay, or calculate and problem solve mathematically. For those critics who say we have moved too quickly, I maintain we must have a sense of urgency so that the 850,000 students in Arizona classrooms today will have the opportunity for a good education. We owe that much to our children and our communities.

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