Sept. 8, 2004 - Canyon del Oro Principal Michael Gemma told parents at the beginning of this school year that for some, academic success was a matter of students "getting off their behinds."

Gemma said he thinks that by 2006, students at his school should be able to meet the goal recently set by State Superintendent Tom Horne of a 90 percent passage rate on the AIMS test. The national goal set by No Child Left Behind legislation, signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2001, requires 100 percent of students meet set standards.

"The test is reasonable," Gemma said. "I tell parents, and students, there is no secret to school success. You need to come to school, you need to do your work, your homework and participate in your education."

AIMS scores were released by the state Aug. 24 and at CDO, the results for 10th graders went up in all three categories, a trend that makes Gemma very happy. Amphitheater Unified School District in general is performing higher, on average, than the rest of the state on the mandated tests.

"We are very pleased with our scores," Gemma said in a recent interview regarding this year's results. But now that 10th graders must pass the test to graduate, Gemma said the staff cannot bask in the recent success for long. "We certainly have a lot more to do."

AIMS, or Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards, is a test issued each spring to the state's third, fifth, eighth and 10th graders. Beginning this year, 10th grade students are required to pass the test to graduate and students who do not pass on the first attempt may be tested up to four additional times in 11th and 12th grade in order to meet the requirement.

After release of last spring's results Aug. 24, Horne issued a statement predicting 90 percent of high school seniors should be passing the tests by 2006. He pointed to states with similar accountability processes, such as Florida and Massachusetts, where that 90 percent passing rate is now being reached.

Teachers are reporting that students, and their parents, are taking the test more seriously, according to Horne's statement; and with statewide interventions now in place to help those who fail to pass on their first attempts, the elements are aligned to foster improved results.

Horne stated the 10 percent who are not passing can be explained by poor attendance of a segment of students who are not present when teachers are instructing students with the information they will need to meet the standard.

But that 2006 goal may seem lofty to some who see just two years to bring, on the average, 30 percent of students up to par.

Sixty-one percent of 10th grade students in the state are still falling below the benchmark in math, an improvement of one percent over last year's failing rate of 62 percent.

While 70 percent of those same sophomores were passing the writing portion of the exams last year, 62 percent reached that goal this year. A decline in reading proficiency also was reflected with 59 percent passing the test, down from 62 percent.

There were approximately 15,000 more Arizona students tested in each subject area this year than were tested in 2003.

Reading and writing scores are on the decline, too, in Amphitheater, with 5 percent fewer 10th grade students passing the reading exam and 12 percent fewer passing the writing exam in the district. Math scores increased by 4 percent in that same segment of the student body.

In eighth grade, however, scores indicate improvement in reading, rising from 60 percent passage to 66 percent this year. Math scores also are up from 29 percent passage last year to 40 percent passing this year.

Amphitheater Associate Superintendent of School Operations Patrick Nelson said, overall, the district was pleased with the scores, being above the state average at every grade level and in all content areas.

"Certainly, there are pockets where we've had some ups and downs we need to take a look at and see what we can match that to in terms of curriculum," he said.

Six Amphitheater schools were labeled highly performing last year on the state's report card, including CDO, Painted Sky Elementary and Mesa Verde Elementary. Four schools were labeled excelling, including Harelson, Copper Creek and Cross elementaries and Wilson K-8. This year's labels will not be released until mid-October, and AIMS scores play a big factor in how schools are graded.

At CDO, while math results show 8 percent more students passing the test this year, Gemma said a 59 percent overall passage rate is something the schools need to continue addressing. He said it is arguably the most difficult test, and many 10th grade students have not had the basic classes that will help them pass it, namely Algebra I and Geometry.

"You really need those classes to be competitive with AIMS," he said.

For those not passing the tests, CDO offers specific remediation classes to students, as well as after school tutoring four evenings each week. In addition, the Amphitheater district offered summer school this year and plans to offer it again to provide extra instruction.

Gemma agreed with Horne when he said he believes more students are taking the test seriously, although he said there are those few older students who do not need the test to graduate who may blow it off. He adds that a "good byproduct" has been created by the tests in that he sees students taking their overall course work more seriously as well.

"There is accountability," he said.

Gemma said he is particularly proud of CDO having so few students who placed in the Falls Far Below category of results. This year 5 percent of writing scores, 1 percent of reading scores and 23 percent of math scores were in this category.

The state ranks scores in four different categories based on how much of the standard content they have mastered as reflected in test answers: Falls Far Below, Approaches the Standard, Meets the Standards and Exceeds the Standard. Students must at least meet the standard to be considered passing.

For those who have tested in the Falls Far Below category, CDO is offering individualized attention. Gemma said the school is inviting the parents of any student who has one or more FFB scores to meet one-on-one with a counselor at the school.

"We really want to make sure parents understand how all of this fits together," he said. "We are literally getting it down to the individual. As far as the student or parent is concerned, that's all that counts."

Ironwood Ridge High School Principal Sam McClung saw passing scores in reading and writing decrease slightly at his school this year although the school is still scoring nearly 20 percent higher than the state average.

While scores were up in math, it is the subject area where the most work is still needed as 59 percent of students passed, up from 47 percent last year.

"As someone who works with students and parents, anything short of 100 percent saddens me," he said.

McClung said while much of the focus has been put on scores going up in the three categories, he urges the public not to lose sight of those students who are sitting in the classroom with the very real possibility of not graduating in 2006 because they did not pass the test.

He said whether that is one student or 100 students, it is the call of educators to help them pass.

"Let's not forget that sitting in the classroom today are kids that are juniors, the class of 2006, that may have been attending school faithfully for years . . . that are faced with the reality that right now they aren't going to get a diploma," he said, adding that those who are in high school have attended school for years with a different curriculum and without the high stakes testing.

The staff at IRHS is doing several things to address proficiency, including offering math and English lab electives that provide two hours each day of extra instruction in the content areas to "help students catch up."

He said he believes there also is an emotional impact of the test that may need to be addressed with students as the pressure mounts to make the grade.

With this being the first year the tests are counted for graduation, and with the scores just being released, it is hard to tell how that impact will manifest itself, however. McClung said counselors at IRHS are qualified to talk with students who are feeling overwhelmed, stressed out or upset by the tests.

McClung said the curriculum is not something that is set in stone, and teachers and administrators are constantly looking at how to make changes that will help students learn what is now required of every Arizona student.

"Each time we see the test, seeing how the test company is interpreting the standards, that causes us to adjust how we approach the standards," McClung said. He said ideally, the teacher is also the one crafting the assessment, but with an external assessor, it becomes more of a challenge to align what is taught with what is tested.

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