(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)
In an attempt to keep viewers tuning-in after many years on the air, the sitcom Happy Days produced an episode where Fonzie jumped a Great White shark on water-skis. This episode brought the phrase “Jumping the Shark” into the pop-culture lexicon. Jumping the Shark denotes a tipping point in which something becomes absurd and suffers a noticeable decline. Arizona once was a leader in the standards and accountability movement, but those days are long gone. Days ago, Arizona lawmakers dispensed with AIMS as a graduation requirement, making the sad decline of AIMS into farce complete.
The credibility of Arizona’s K-12 testing has suffered the death of a thousand cuts. In 2004, Arizona schools faced a problem in that No Child Left Behind requires schools to be judged by ethnic subgroups, and Hispanic scores were all but certain to force many schools to be ranked failing under federal guidelines.
Instead, the state simply made AIMS much, much easier to pass. Presto-chango, Arizona Hispanic students (and others) were transformed from having been projected to fail the federal standards in almost all subjects at all grade levels in 2005 to passing almost all of them. A study by Peterson and Hess noted that Arizona’s dummy-down was the largest in the country.
Hop on over, the water’s fine!
Around that same time, the Arizona Department of Education recommended replacing the Stanford 9 exam with an Arizona version of the Terra Nova to imbed into AIMS. Happily, the new “Terra Zona” exam found that Arizona students are above the national average in every grade and in every subject tested.
One small problem: the results aren’t the least bit credible. The Arizona Department of Education recently mailed out the latest state report card, and the evidence of the farcical nature of this home-grown exam can be found in ADE’s own booklet.
On the one hand, the ADE touts the above average Terra Nova scores, but in the same booklet, it presents an analysis from the RAND Corporation showing that if you control for student demographics, Arizona’s scores on the Nation’s Report Card are average instead of rock bottom. The Nation’s Report Card- or NAEP- represents the nation’s most highly respected source of K-12 testing data.
The RAND report is entirely credible. Arizona has a far more difficult to educate student body than the national average- with a much higher percentage of low-income students, English language learners and minority students than the national average.
Controlling for demographic factors is a huge step to take. For instance, Arizona has a percentage of children eligible for a free or reduced price lunch more than twice as large as the national average. Our ratio of children who are English Language Learners is almost four times the national average.
If you pretend that Arizona has an ELL population one fourth its actual size, and about half the number of low-income children that we actually have, and some similar heroic assumptions, Arizona’s adjusted scores near the Minnesota middle instead of close to the bottom.
Arizona’s Terra Nova, however, does not control for demographics at all but somehow finds our students above the national average in every single subject without any adjustment whatsoever. If you are willing to buy that, I’ve got a bridge I’d like to sell you in Brooklyn.
Finally, AIMS has suffered what ought to be its final indignity. The legislature passed “AIMS Augmentation” in order to allow 6,000 high school seniors to graduate despite an inability to pass what at most amounts to a test of basic skills.
If you can’t pass a 10th grade level test, the original thinking went, you don’t deserve to graduate. A diploma should mean something. After delaying the graduation requirement several times, the augmentation bill has effectively killed it.
State policymakers should rethink our entire system of testing. Research shows that children who fail to learn to read in the early grades later drop out in huge numbers. Using AIMS as a graduation requirement addresses the problem at the back end. Arizona should look to Florida, which uses testing to require students to repeat grades if they don’t learn to read in the early years. Florida’s 4th grade reading scores used to scrape the bottom with Arizona, but now they greatly exceed us. Florida’s system set kids up to succeed, rather than to fail.
Parents, teachers, administrators and policymakers all require a credible and transparent system of student data. The AIMS/Terra Nova exam is not delivering. ABC eventually cancelled Happy Days and replaced it with another program. Arizona policymakers should do the same with AIMS.