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Graduate students face real-world challenges in education policy

May 12, 2009

Seven graduate students in educational leadership and policy studies at Arizona State University received their first difficult lesson in the politics of public education when they entered the tornado of controversy swirling around Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards (AIMS), a high-stakes test required for high school graduation.

“We’ve seen the little man behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz very early in our trip down the yellow brick road,” analogized Victor Diaz. He was one of seven doctoral students in the Mary Lou Fulton Institute and Graduate School of Education who gave research-backed reports to the Arizona State Department of Education’s AIMS Task Force. 

Each student’s presentation was on a topic related to a task force mission, such as the purpose and consequences of high-stakes tests, promotion and tenure issues, and the use of college readiness tests in state assessment systems. AIMS originally was intended to measure the proficiency of 10th grade students, but its credibility as an exit exam is under fire from opponents.

Much like the characters in Oz, these first-year graduate students put their hearts and intellects into a unique class project in which they analyzed educational research on the impact of high-stakes testing. They then had the courage to present the controversial information to the AIMS Task Force charged with making new recommendations for the state-mandated tests.

But unlike Dorothy in Oz, these students didn’t necessarily realize their dream – to affect change in Arizona’s standardized testing policy. On May 6, the task force finalized its recommendations for AIMS to the State Governing Board of Education, Gov. Jan Brewer and state lawmakers. Despite the vast research-based evidence against using standardized testing to make critical educational decisions about students or schools, the group recommended continuing the reading, mathematics and writing AIMS tests as a requirement for high school graduation. 

“The biggest shift in being a doctoral student is, instead of consuming knowledge, we now produce knowledge,” said Diaz. “The assumption is that our knowledge is going to be used by the broader society or, in this case, the policymakers.”

While scholars seek opportunities to inform and shape public policy through their research, policymakers' decisions are sometimes influenced by forces beyond scholarly research, which was disappointing but eye-opening for the students.

The AIMS Task Forces has acknowledged that these tests do not measure the skills and knowledge necessary to demonstrate whether high school graduates are prepared for college and careers.  It now advocates implementing new college and career readiness tests for all 11th graders as well as replacing the state’s norm-referenced test (TerraNova) for 9th graders with college and career potential tests. In addition, the task force recommends forming a new committee to consider a high school graduation endorsement that signifies student readiness for college and career.

David Garcia, ASU assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies and an expert in Arizona education policy, facilitated the task force and restructured a course to involve the students in the policy process. While most educational leadership and policy studies graduates don’t encounter the often disillusioning disjoint between researchers and policymakers until their professional careers, Garcia’s students are writing narratives on such an experience for a possible journal article.

“This was a defining event for our students who come into our program with really different expectations,” Garcia said. “They pulled in a lot of research and made the task force think hard about these issues. They also got a firsthand look at the intersection between research and policy and how the academic literature can be, but sometime is not, useful to policy audiences.
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“Through this process, we have had rich discussions about how this has shaped, changed or reinforced their existing expectations about their graduate school education, career aspirations and making an impact on policy,” he added.

Vince Yanez, executive director of the Arizona State Board of Education, said the ASU students provided a strong foundation of research from which task force members could form their opinions.

“It was crucial to the entire process, and they did a fantastic job,” Yanez praised. “They did a very good job looking at the issues placed on each individual agenda and, from my perspective, they also did a very good job looking at the issues and pulling the research from both sides. I certainly hope this happens more in the future. I think there should be a very strong partnership between our policymakers and our researchers. It’s beneficial to the students, obviously, and it’s a tremendous benefit to those who are charged with actually making these policy decisions.”

Kimberly Eversman, who aspires to become a researcher and work with teachers, schools, communities and policymakers, said presenting to the task force allowed her to see how policymakers and researchers interact.

“I think I came into it a bit more idealistic than I should have been, and it has presented me with a realistic view of the world,” she said.

State Governing Board Vice President Vicki Balentine, superintendent of Amphitheater Public Schools in Tucson, also praised the students’ work.

“These students were interacting with people who literally are going to be influencing the policy in the state of Arizona, and they were taken as very credible sources,” she said. “Their summary information had to have background that couldn’t be a superficial understanding of the issues. It wasn’t about presenting a one-pager. This was a great experience for them, and activities that are application based are going to be the strongest learning.”

Eversman and Diaz said they were invigorated rather than disillusioned by the inevitable challenges of a career in educational leadership and policy.

“To have that opportunity to work with Dr. Garcia and the task force is just mind-blowing. I don’t know many colleagues who have had the opportunities that forced us to deal with that frustration in a real-world context,” Everson said. “If this experience has taught me anything, it’s the importance of maintaining relationships with community-based advocacy groups and actual policymakers. People play an important role in how policy is played out, and often the common person is left out of that.  I see myself as being a bridge between those two realms.”

“It has energized me more to do this sort of work, even if I am beating my head against the wall. I think I’m more motivated now than I was prior to this experience,” Diaz declared.