April 13, 2005 - Students are not the only ones stressing about this week's AIMS testing. School officials are also feeling the heat, knowing the results will determine next year's achievement profile.
AIMS results are the main determiners of school labels, or achievement profiles, which are handed down annually from the Arizona Department of Education. The labels (excelling, highly performing, performing, underperforming and failing to meet academic standards) can make or break a school in the public eyes, a fact many school officials fear.
"Bottom line, public perception is a very important thing," said Vicki Balentine, the superintendent of Amphitheater Public Schools.
Balentine admitted labels illustrate how well a school is doing, but she said a lot rests on one label with a complicated formula.
AIMS results go into determining how a school will fare, as do dropout rates, graduation rates and individual school testing with such programs as MAP.
One formula factoring into the label equation is adequate yearly progress, or AYP. Students are expected to increase their individual AIMS results, showing a year's growth. Herein lies the worry. School officials are concerned that even with a high label, such as performing or highly performing, a school could slip down the slope to a lower label just because its numbers weren't high enough to show adequate progress for the school year.
Achievement profiles came along in 2002 as a way to increase accountability and determine the progress of schools and their students. Arizona Learns was devised by the passing of Education 2000-Proposition 301, first brought forth by Gov. Jane Hull in 2000. With the passing of the proposition, sales tax increased six-tenths of a percent to provide educational improvements.
Since resources for schools were increasing, educators and parents thought schools, themselves, should be held up to a higher standard and greater accountability, which lead to the Arizona Learns legislation and the creation of school labels, according to the Arizona Department of Education Web site.
While no district said it disliked the labels, it's clear that the month when labels are assigned is a tense one, as schools wait to see where they fall.
"It is tough being in a district," said Jan Truitt, interim assistant superintendent at Marana Unified School District. "Every district, across the nation absolutely dreads what could happen if and when their school gets the label."
This past September, MUSD was rated highly by the state. No school scored lower than performing. But with the good ratings come expectations that the schools will improve before labels are given out the next year.
"Our schools are all doing very well, but every year the bar goes up," Truitt said.
One way the bar is going up is through the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001's mandate that each student must make "adequate yearly progress." With the new legislation, every student must meet or exceed the state academic standards by 2013-14.
For all schools, tension is building. Time is growing short for having 100 percent of students proficient in all areas, Truitt said.
It is not enough to rely on only the AIMS results, though the numbers largely make up the schools' label status, Truitt said. It is also important to look at other testing data to obtain a clear view of where students needs help.
"Even if one group at any grade level falls into an underperforming situation, that can cause the whole school to fall," Truitt said.
MUSD uses a quarterly testing method, the District Assessment Program, which provides some clarity about where a student may be lacking. Amphi uses similar testing called MAP.
The DAP tests are used as "benchmarks," and are given so a teacher can adjust instruction to better fit the needs of the student, so "when that test comes in the spring from the state the student has the best chance possible to do well," Truitt said.
The "test" is the AIMS test, given to students in grades three to nine, and again in grades 10 to 12. A rolling average of the results is used to determine the performance level of each school. Additional points are awarded to elementary and middle schools depending on Stanford 9 results, and at the high school level, points are awarded for increased graduation rates and dropout rates lower than the state average.
One change taken into account is that the Stanford 9 test has changed and is now the Terra Nova. It will be given in conjunction with AIMS as a standard test for grades three to nine.
"It is advantageous because it is cutting the amount of testing we have to do," Truitt said.
Frustration comes into play when the district receives a high label, such as highly performing or, the highest, excelling. Even with the highest label, the district must show improvements, striving, in the end, for 100 percent of students meeting standards.
"It is a difficult situation," Truitt said. "As educators, we must believe that every child can learn. So, if you have this philosophy that every child can learn then you must have at some point the belief that all children can master standards."
"If you move away from that, do you really believe all children can learn?" Truitt said. "It is a paradox."
It is not unusual for some schools to increase on the label scale and for others to decrease. In the 2002-03 school year, MUSD had two schools excelling: Quail Run Elementary and Tortolita Middle schools. In 2003-04, Quail Run was the only school to receive an excelling label, with Tortolita falling to a highly performing level.
For Foster Hepler, principal at Mesa Verde Elementary School, it was tough receiving a highly performing label in 2002-03 and falling down to only performing for the next year. But one point Hepler said he is certain of is that his school does a great job locating subject areas in need of improvement.
While Hepler could not give a clear reason why his school declined in the labeling, Balentine speculated that the reason may have been related, simply, to the number of students the state required to meet or exceed standards.
No matter what the reasons for increases and decreases in status, labels are always on the minds of administrators and teachers, Hepler said.
"It's a difficult, very intricate process," he said. "We're intrigued and concerned as to where we are going with the labeling."
Hepler said it is important to be aware of students' academic and social needs and let the labeling come second.
Numerous interventions, such as conferences, planning periods, improvement plans and staff development, are addressed annually on the campus, Hepler said, all in the interest of students' individual needs. Those are just a few ways Mesa Verde makes sure students will leave the campus at a higher performance level than they had when they entered, he said.
"We're making an atmosphere here," he said. "There's magic that happens on this campus daily."
Copper Creek Elementary School also decreased its labeling in the 2003-04 year. The school went from excelling to highly performing.
Assistant Principal Lora Herbein declined to comment about the label, referring all questions regarding labels to Amphi administrators. Balentine said the reason Herbein may not have wanted to comment was that the labeling process is so complicated that it is easy to speak about it inaccurately.
When called for clarification regarding the labeling formulas, the Arizona Department of Education did not return repeated phone calls to the EXPLORER.
Catalina Foothills School District has remained excelling within all of its schools, but even with the highest label possible, pressure is still put on the schools to improve each year.
"Our standard is all kids should be able to know and do this," said Terry Downey, the assistant superintendent. If students are having difficulty in a certain testing area or are not showing adequate yearly progress, the district must look at where they can intervene and help the student, Downey said.
"What would it take to pass?," she said. "What is it that we're doing? And how is it that we can change?" These all are important questions that Downey said keeps a district excelling and improving each year.
So, as students fill in their AIMS testing sheets this week, district officials will be anxiously awaiting the test results, as they ultimately will account for the labels that will personify their schools for the next year.
For Phil Woodall, principal at Orange Grove Middle School, the testing time is stressful enough, and homework has been canceled for the week of testing to give students more time to focus on the task at hand.
The test is a narrow measurement of how a student is actually doing, Woodall said, but he admits it is important to see where a student may need to focus attention.
When asked if labels are beneficial to the district, Superintendent Balentine laughed, saying "if you're excelling."
"There is still a taint in views of perception," she said. "If there is something above performing then I want to be that."
AZ Learns Achievement Profiles
Amphitheater High School: performing
Amphi Middle School: highly performing
CDO High School: highly performing
Copper Creek Elementary: highly performing
Coronado K-8 School: performing
Nash Elementary: performing
Holaway Elementary: performing
Keeling Elementary: performing
Ironwood Ridge High School: highly performing
Prince Elementary: performing
La Cima Middle School: highly performing
Cross Middle School: excelling
Lulu Walker Elementary: performing
Donaldson Elementary: highly performing
Mesa Verde Elementary: performing
Painted Sky Elementary: highly performing
Wilson K-8: excelling
Rio Vista Elementary: performing
Harelson Elementary: excelling
Canyon View Elementary: excelling
Catalina Foothills High School: excelling
Esperero Canyon Middle School: excelling
Manzanita Elementary: excelling
Orange Grove Middle School: excelling
Sunrise Drive Elementary: excelling
Ventana Vista Elementary: excelling
Butterfield Elementary:highly performing
Coyote Trail Elementary: highly performing
Degrazia Elementary: performing
Desert Winds Elementary: performing
Ironwood Elementary: highly performing
Marana High School: performing
Marana Middle School: highly performing
Estes Elementary: performing
Mountain View High School: highly performing
Picture Rocks Intermediate: performing
Quail Run Elementary: excelling
Roadrunner Elementary: performing
Thornydale Elementary: performing
Tortolita Middle: highly performing
Twin Peaks Elementary: highly performing
Source: Arizona Department of Education
Labels are based on the 2003-2004 academic year.