The latest round of AIMS testing reveals that Payson and Pine-Strawberry students continue to out-perform the state average, but also that serious questions about the test remain.
The test results for last spring's testing, released by Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne, Sept. 2, after several delays, showed area students outscored the state average at every grade level and in every subject area with the exception of 10th-grade math. In that category, 36 percent of area students either met or exceeded the standard -- exactly the same as the stage average.
AIMS, the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards, is a standards-based exit exam. This means exam questions are written to test students on information that educators believe they must know.
About half the states either have or are phasing in exit exams like AIMS. The test, which measures proficiency in writing, reading and math, is currently given to all Arizona students in grades three, five, eight and 10.
"Beginning with the current class of high school sophomores, passing the AIMS test will be mandatory before getting a diploma," Horne said. "That will be a tremendous incentive in years to come."
Tenth-graders who met or exceeded the standard in all three areas do not have to take it again. Those who failed to meet the standard in one or more subject areas can retake the test in those specific areas until they finally pass. For this reason, some juniors and seniors retake parts of the test each time it is given.
Local third-graders scored the highest, with 80 percent meeting or exceeding the state average in writing, 85 percent in reading, and 71 percent in math. The state average in those categories was 71 percent, 68 percent, and 53 percent respectively.
PUSD Superintendent Herb Weissenfels said he was pleased with the results.
"It is obvious from the results that our students are doing very well and our teachers, parents, and community deserve a commendation for a three-star education effort," he said.
On a school-by-school basis, Payson Elementary School had the highest percentage of students meeting and exceeding the standards, followed by Julia Randall Elementary School and Frontier Elementary School. Pine-Strawberry third-graders outpointed their PUSD counterparts, but P-S fifth-graders came in last among area elementary schools.
A higher percentage of Rim Country Middle School eighth-graders met or exceeded standards than their Pine-Strawberry counterparts in writing and math, but not in reading.
PES Principal Roy Sandoval said he believes his students did well because of the extensive analysis he and his teachers performed on the results, both overall and targeting specific groups who came very close to meeting the standard in specific subject areas. Sandoval also said his teachers deserve a large share of the credit.
"My people worked so hard on those interventions and on changing how they taught," he said.
P-S Principal Kathe Ketchem agreed that analysis is the key to improvement.
"Test results are analyzed to determine individual needs, then instructional focus plans are created by teachers to target areas of need," Ketchem said. "Writing is our main focus for staff development this school year ..."
New Payson High School Principal Sue Myers said the whole district can be proud of the reading and writing results, and that all teachers and administrators are working together to improve math scores.
"Our math teachers are meeting with the middle school math teachers so their kids come to us ready to learn what we're ready to teach," Myers said. "Hopefully, we'll see an improvement in those scores."
The AIMS test has been controversial since its inception in 1999, when nine of 10 sophomores failed the math section. Despite retooling and relaxation of the deadline requiring high school students to pass from 2001 to 2006, the test remains controversial.
"The state superintendent believes that the math test scoring is flawed and they're going to be rewriting that test with much easier questions come this spring," Weissenfels said.
Sandoval explained yet another problem with the current version of AIMS.
"What they're actually finding is that there's a significant dropoff after fifth grade," he said. "It seems to me the test loses some validity after the fifth grade. A lot of it may have to do with the maturation of the average eighth-grade mind. The test is suspect at eighth grade or tenth grade."
Myers said she agreed.
"I talked to (former PHS Principal) Phil Gille, who is now teaching college math," she said. "He told me that some students aren't ready to get algebra until they're juniors or seniors, yet they have to pass the test as sophomores. That seems really unfair."
Despite the controversy still surrounding the test, Weissenfels is happy with the latest round of results.
"No matter what's happening in the state, our kids are doing better, and it's a chance to give accolades to not just our teachers, because really that kind of result is community -- parents and teachers and naturally the kids," he said. "Sure we've got our challenges and problems, but we're darn proud of what we have."