Arizona Superintendent of Schools Tom Horne talks about the latest results of the AIMS test.
Ted Simons: Good evening, and welcome to "Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. The future spring training home of the Arizona Diamondbacks will be on Indian land near the loop 101 and Indian Bend Road in Scottsdale. The Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian community announced today that it will build a $100 million spring training complex for the Diamondbacks and the Colorado Rockies to share. The facility includes an 11,000 seat stadium that's supposed to be ready for the 2011 Cactus League season. Scores from the latest AIMS test are out and there is some improvement. Over half a million students in the third, eighth and tenth grades took the test last April. 69% passed the math portion of the test, up from 67% a year ago. 71% passed reading, up from 68%. And 80% passed the writing portion of the test, up from 69% in 2008. Writing scores have fluctuated a bit over the last few years prompting officials to rework that part of the test. Here now to talk about the AIMS test is Tom Horne, Arizona's superintendent of public instruction. Good to see you again.
Tom Horne: Thank you.
Ted Simons: Your thoughts on improving test scores.
Tom Horne: It's been consistent. The difficulty has not changed since 2005 and yet every year, the scores have gone up. The students are learning more and the teachers are doing a good job and we're seeing a constant improvement on the tests.
Ted Simons: I was going to ask, what's going on here? Why are these improving?
Tom Horne: Since I took office in 2003, our emphasis has been academic standards in the classroom. You have testing and -- and accountability for the results of the test. Accountability of the schools and teachers and of the students and so they have to pass the test to graduate and that has an effect in making people feel a greater sense of urgency to make sure that the kids know what they need to learn.
Ted Simons: Critics will say that the teachers are teaching the test more and the kids are still not getting a well rounded education. Your response.
Tom Horne: It measures the standards. That's what AIMS standard stands for. The standards are what the teachers have agreed to teach and so every question on the test is a measure of a performance objective. And so the AIMS test is only testing what the kids have been taught. How do you teach the reading test? We ask the kids to read a short passage and answer questions. The only way to each that test is to do a lot of reading. I've heard kids complaining they're getting too much reading and that's music to my ears. The only way to teach the writing test is to have them write a lot so they can write good grammar and good organization, and that's the only way to teach the writing. The math, to be able to do problems and so teaching the test is what we want. Because we're testing the standards and in addition, we want the teachers to teach what they like to teach, but as a minimum, they must teach the standards.
Ted Simons: And I think that's where the criticism comes in. You'll hear people say an AIMS test is great. You're responding to what you're taught, but doesn't necessarily measure what a student knows.
Tom Horne: It does, in terms of the standards. We want the students to do --
Ted Simons: Those standards, but maybe not more well rounded stuff. The criticism goes along those lines.
Tom Horne: I do agree we want more than just teaching the standards. We want the teachers to teach what they're interested in in depth, because teachers can be creative with that. I'm a big advocate of the arts and history, which we don't test. Although I advocate we do teach that. But what the AIMS tests is, do the kids understand the questions and do problems and write in a well grammatical way with good content?
Ted Simons: We had a taskforce here that suggested that the AIMS test doesn't necessarily prepare kids in terms of college and career. College and career readiness lacking with this AIMS test?
Tom Horne: That's true, it's a 10th grade test. They get one chance the sophomore year, two their junior and the taskforce, that we must keep the AIMS, it was an important part of the taskforce's questions -- should we keep the AIMS? Yes. But in addition to that, we need an 11th grade test and it wouldn't be at high stakes but would help to determine are the kids ready for college and jobs.
Ted Simons: Was there a 9th and 11th grade test?
Tom Horne: I believe the essence of what the taskforce said, which I agree is we need an 11th grade test, that kids don't have to pass it to graduate, but gives us a good sense to determine if they're ready for college or the workforce. But the AIMS test, it's the high stakes test. If a student has a degree, we know the student knows and can do these things.
Ted Simons: We're seeing great fluctuations in the writing test. What's going on?
Tom Horne: We're trying to make objective something that's inherently subjective. You have human beings looking at essays and deciding how good they are. We have four people reading every paper in high school. It's an expensive test, where we check to see if people are grading in a consistent way and double check, even after they've been trained, we look at samples of the papers to see if they're consistent. And now we're going have short answer to make it more objective. It's a constant -- more objective.
Ted Simons: I had read somewhere that the multiple choice questions might be asked in the writing portion. That makes sense.
Tom Horne: There is some knowledge about writing that you can test with short answers. It's no substitute for the actual writing itself and that's why we spend so much money on the writing portion. It's important that students are able to write with good content.
Ted Simons: The eighth grade reading and math tests, what's going on there?
Tom Horne: People like to joke it's hormones, but when the standards were first set, they were set in silos. And the eighth grade teachers happened to set a high standard, so their kids didn't get as many questions right. The last time we revised, we tried to smooth it out. We didn't do it totally with eighth grade. It's historical.
Ted Simons: Changes coming up with the AIMS test? What to look for?
Tom Horne: Some changes in the writing test to make it as objective as we can. In the long term, raising standards as -- as the society accepts the idea that kids have to pass a test to graduate, making the test harder as we go along, as we get better at teaching the standards so we get higher and higher standards. With those higher standards, more expectations on the kids and teachers as well.
Ted Simons: The budget cuts, as far as education are concerned, budget cuts everywhere. But education getting hit to a certain degree. How did that work out?
Tom Horne: I think to be fair to the legislature, you have to point out that the budget cuts to the schools is, at worst, about 2%. Now, other parts of the government have been cut 20% or 30%. My department has been cut 20%. And the schools cut is about 2%. There was no need to lay off teachers. And you can cut back on things that are less essential like not buying new textbooks all the time.
Ted Simons: Any kind of cut at all, whether a 2% or more, regardless of what it is, it's still less than what it was and you're still trying to improve AIMS scores. Are they going to suffer?
Tom Horne: I don't think so. In the long term, when the economy turns around, my job is to advocate at legislature to give a priority. And if we do get more resources and shown very good results for a situation where resources are not good, in fact, above the national arrange on the national test which all of our kids take -- a lot of people don't realize we're above the national average on that. And the S.A.T. college entry test and we're doing a good job with the resources we have and when the economy does better and our resources are available, and if the legislature gives us a higher priority, I believe we'll be among the top states in the country.