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Assessment

Ariz. Students Retake Tests To Help Schools

By Darcia Harris Bowman — May 05, 2004 3 min read
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Before Arizona students sat down recently to take the state’s graduation test, some schools encouraged students who had already passed the exam to try again.

With some 50,000 sophomores scheduled to take the final state exam of the school year on April 23, at least a handful of schools were urging older students to try raising their passing scores to help their schools earn better state rankings.

A change in state policy last year made the practice legitimate and attractive to some schools.

In some cases, administrators went to considerable lengths to persuade juniors and seniors who had already passed the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards, or AIMS, exam to take it again, on the chance that they would improve their scores and help push their schools into one of the top categories, “highly performing” or “excelling.”

In the 23,000-student Phoenix Union High School District, for example, principals organized parties and raffles to entice students to retake the test last month.

Two years ago, seven of the district’s 10 high schools were labeled “underperforming,” which is the lowest ranking. By last year, however, all had improved enough to rise to the category of “performing.”

One obvious reason to push for higher test scores is to avoid state interventions such as administrator firings and takeovers by private education companies—measures that are aimed at schools that persistently fail to meet standards, Phoenix Union spokesman Craig A. Pletenik said last week.

“But it also becomes a bit of a marketing thing if we can say our schools are highly performing or excelling,” Mr. Pletenik said.

In a district where easily half the students speak a language other than English in their homes and 80 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, “I don’t think [urging capable students to retake the test] is a case of stacking the deck,” he said.

‘Do Your Best’

Before 2003, Arizona’s school rankings were based on the percentage of students who passed or failed the AIMS.

But last year, state schools chief Tom Horne lobbied for a change that allows schools to receive extra points for students whose test scores exceeded standards.

To reach the status of “highly performing,” a school must be among the top 25 percent in the percentage of its students who exceed the state education standards. Landing in the top 10 percent by that same measure earns a school the state’s coveted “excelling” label.

“It’s not expected that kids can always achieve that [top scoring category] in their sophomore year, so we encourage schools to continue to develop their students’ competencies during the junior and sophomore years,” Mr. Horne said in an interview.

“If it’s up to me to measure the performance of schools,” he added, “I don’t think I can do that based just on what happens in students’ freshman and sophomore years.”

Administrators in some districts say they have no interest in urging students to spend more time and energy on standardized tests than is necessary.

“We told our students, ‘Do your best the first time, and if you pass, you can sleep in a couple of mornings when we retest,’ ” said Joe M. O’Reilly, the executive director for student- achievement support for the 75,000-student Mesa public schools, the state’s largest district. “We made that promise last year, and all of our high schools decided collectively to keep it.”

Besides, Mr. O’Reilly argued, it’s rare that a school can boost itself into the top rankings, because it takes a near-perfect performance for a student to exceed the standards on the AIMS exam.

“The intention at the state level of [retesting students who passed] is to make students excel and perform better,” he said, “but we’re already doing a lot of things to stretch students without asking them to take a test again.”

State Superintendent Horne says, though, that “spending a couple of hours to take the test again isn’t that much of a distraction.”

“One of my goals is to focus not only on bringing students up from bottom to proficiency, but to also increase the competency of average and excelling students,” he said.

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