Sunday Commentary: School Board Shows No Urgency to Fix AIM Shortcoming

Alan Fernandes in September 2015

A year ago, when the first round of AIM (Alternative Instructional Model) testing results came out, they showed that very few black and Hispanic students had qualified for the AIM program.  Madhavi Sunder, who was board president at the time, called the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test (NNAT), and other new tests they used, a failure.

She said that English Language Learners, low income students, learning disabled students, and racial minorities, “that we know are often unfairly disadvantaged on the OLSAT [Otis-Lennon School Ability Test],” were also not being identified through re-test.

However, there was push-back from her colleagues. Last April, then-Board Member Susan Lovenburg stated, “I don’t agree that the process that the board put in place is a failure.  It functioned as it was intended to and, if not, we need to make changes going forward.”

Board Member Barbara Archer would later add, “I do agree with President Sunder that we have to address (it) this year, but I really object to calling our program a failure when you don’t know the percentages of third graders in the different minority groups.”

This is a critical backdrop for what happened on Thursday.  Board Member Madhavi Sunder had requested a February hearing for the AIM program, but was overruled on a 3-2 vote by her colleagues, with Bob Poppenga joining her on the short-side of the vote.

During the discussion, now-Board President Barbara Archer said that the existing timeline would work, as she wanted to give staff time to bring back a full analysis.

However, Ms. Sunder objected that waiting until April precludes making changes in time to implement them for the coming year – a notion that Superintendent John Bowes agreed with.

The swing vote here was Alan Fernandes, who agreed with the need for transparency, but stated that “at the end of the day, I don’t understand what the magic is behind (discussing AIM) on Feb. 16 … We can make adjustments (to the program) with three votes” whenever the matter comes before us.

Under the new guidelines, for students with risk factors related to language or culture, the TONI (Test of Nonverbal Intelligence) may be administered. For students with economic risk factors, the Naglieri  may be administered.  On the other hand, the CogAT (Cognitive Abilities Test) is administered for those who scored in the standard error of measure on the OLSAT.

But there is considerable question as to whether that is an appropriate way to proceed.  We have cited research from New York which implemented the Naglieri with no evidence that the use of it changed the demographic distribution of students identified for gifted classes in New York.

The stats from last year are stunning.  A total of 66 Hispanics and 10 black students were rescreened last year.  Of those, 48 of the 66 Hispanics were given the NNAT while 9 of the 10 blacks were.  Zero of them were AIM identified through the NNAT.  There were also 40 white students and 30 Asian Students retested through the NNAT, and only 1 white student and three Asian students were identified.

The bottom line here is that the NNAT was the primary mechanism by which Low SES (socioeconomic status) and Hispanic and black students were retested, and it failed to identify anyone.

Given the failure of the NNAT, both here and in New York, should we not reevaluate whether to utilize that test?

Last year, Ms. Sunder pointed out that there was only a three-percent success rate on the Naglieri, and a 32-percent success rate for the CogAT.

“That was the test (CogAT) that we gave to more advantaged students,” she argued.  “What upsets me is that we gave the disadvantaged students a much harder to succeed on test.”  In the past, they were given the TONI, which had a 14.6 percent success rate.  “We didn’t give the TONI to a single low income student this year.”

This is also a process issue.  Most bodies will allow a single member to place an item on the agenda.  Certainly the request of two members of a governing body should be enough.  Here, the board majority, with Alan Fernandes inexplicably joining in, was able to legislate through a delay.

The matter was pushed back until April, when it will probably be too late to adjust things for the coming year.  While Alan Fernandes may have believed the delay immaterial, his superintendent disagreed.

The political dynamics of this issue make this decision all the more perplexing.

In the last election, Bob Poppenga, the candidate most aligned with supporting existing self-contained AIM programs in the district, finished a commanding first.  A key issue that broke late in the process was the invalidation of the OLSAT for a number of students.

The district’s response to this was almost tone-deaf to the concerns of parents.  Maria Clayton basically said that the situation which “resulted in OLSAT-8 testing irregularities was unfortunate but the resolution, led by the AIM office in concert with principals and teachers districtwide, was immediate, comprehensive and well-communicated to employees and parents.”

To parents concerned with their third-grade kids having to take a three-hour test, that’s not the response they wanted to hear.  And this impacted 300 kids – a much broader swath than just the core AIM parents.

As one parent put it, “I want to add my voice to those who are frustrated with how the AIM program is being administered. The testing this fall, in addition to the debacle that occurred last spring with parents being uninformed/misinformed about the location of the various AIM strands suggests to me that there is a systemic problem.”

Bob Poppenga would finish first in the board election, Alan Fernandes second, and two-time board member – who had authored the AIM changes starting in the spring of 2015 – Susan Lovenberg was defeated, finishing third.

Bob Poppenga’s first-place finish followed Madhavi Sunder’s commanding first-place finish two years earlier, to give the board two solid votes to fix the problems with changes to the AIM program.

On Thursday a number of parents came out to ask the board to take up this issue in February rather than April.  Most notably, one of those was Jamima Wolk, who told the board that they “should have a discussion now.”

When this was delayed, she announced on Facebook that she would be running for the school board in November 2018.  That would seem to be a very credible threat, as Ms. Wolk is the wife of former Mayor Dan Wolk and the daughter-in-law of Senator Lois Wolk.

She would join Madhavi Sunder and possibly Tim Adams and Barbara Archer as potential candidates that year.

But, rather than waiting two years for three solid votes to fix this, the board should be interested in getting on top of the problem now.  Zero black and Hispanic students identified out of 57 re-tested is a huge red flag, particularly after the experience of the New York school district.  Let us stop playing politics here and fix the program.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. JosephBiello

    The rate of AIM contraction has been dramatic.  While I  understand that AIM had evolved into a massive, unwieldy program (something like 30 % of 3rd graders had been AIM identified after testing and retesting) there are ways to keep AIM sustainable while not being unwieldy.

    Last year, the program was to have been contracted to 3 classrooms from 4 by board decision in 2015.  When the AIM placement process had begun – and around the time of the meeting with students and parents – the board arbitrarily contracted it to 2 classrooms, before even knowing the number of students who wanted to be placed.  So, although this year they refuse to reconsider their rapid contraction to 98%ile before all the data is in, last year they were happy to close an AIM line before all the data was in.     The board majority makes one argument on a Monday and another on a Tuesday.

    If the protocol from last year remains, and extrapolating last year’s numbers to this year,  there would be less than one class to fill.    The most frustrating argument of the night came from Board President Archer who insisted that last year’s numbers were irrelevant to the discussion of this year’s process.     Ms. Archer, of course we cannot know the future, but we all use past data to make reasonable predictions about the future.  By your argument, we cannot even know if one student will be enrolled in the Davis District next year because we cannot know the future.

    Alan Fernandes, our last hope for non-politicized decision making, made the second most frustrating point of the night when he said that the board could change the rules whenever they want, so that 98percentile could be changed to 96percentile or whatever the board decides, at the APRIL meeting after all of the families have decided on whether or not to be in AIM.   At some point in the spring families will have made their decisions and planned accordingly – which is what happened last year.  Yes, there is time pressure because, in order to be fair to the families who are planning for their children and in order to be thoughtful about the consequences of rapid contraction.

    What was never made was a self-consistent argument against putting this item on the February agenda.

    Inexplicably all we asked for (myself, Jemima Wolk and Sean Yao) was that the District report the numbers of AIM students who qualified and their demographics.   What the Superintendent responded   was “that will not be ready until April” – which is a patent falsehood since he also said “the placement letters are going out tomorrow”.  So, they clearly have the numbers (it doesn’t take a big computer program to run these numbers)  – all that they do not have is the number of people who choose to be in the program.

    AIM was actually cheaper to administer than the so-called alternative (differentiation in the classroom).   Our education system recognizes the need to provide special services to students such as reading aides and counseling,  why can’t we offer the same to students who are identified as rapid learners?   An AIM program is  important for their emotional health – but no matter how many studies we cite, the District, and it seems that the teachers, too  simply want it to go away.






  2. JosephBiello

    Two more things happened at the Board meeting that I think are important to tell the public.  The Davis Enterprise has an extremely weak explanation of what went on during the  discussion of the “We all Belong: Safe and Welcoming Schools”.

    While there was absolutely nobody in the room who was against this resolution,  Attorney Ann Block, among at least one or two other speakers made the extremely important point that this resolution seems to have no teeth whatsoever.  It affirms our Districts commitment to having Welcoming schools and, in the case that some Federal agency comes looking to deport students, all communication must go through the District office in writing with “reasonable notification”.

    I would think that that was true already since teachers and principals are not trained to understand the different kinds of writs that the feds can issue.

    What it seems to me is that beyond a statement of re-affirmation, this resolution doesn’t say much of anything – and leaves a lot to the discretion of the superintendent.   As Ann Block (and others) pointed out,  could we go farther.  Could we affirm that there is never any reason for a federal enforcement official to find him/herself on school property because the laws they enforce do not bear on immediate threats to public (and child) safety.    Can we do more?

    I think people should read the resolution:


    I would have liked something more poetic, for example, to mangle  Thomas Jefferson:

    “When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for a community to protect the values which bind it together,  a decent respect to the opinions of humankind requires that  they should declare their rationale for these values, that they should reaffirm these values, and that they should set forth the process by which they will defend these values.

    We hold these truths to be self-evident, that children who feel safe and protected grow into healthy adults.   That it is the primary role of our public schools to nurture children into adulthood.  That each and every child  who sets foot on the grounds of the Davis Public Schools is equal to every other child in our schools.  Regardless of every other possible classification, a child is first an innocent child, innocent of any transgressions of the parent and the Davis schools will treat all children equally. …. [etc]”

    And, then I would have hoped for something stronger regarding the defense of these values.

  3. Don Shor

    It is very regrettable that it may take two election cycles to undo the damage done by the previous board  majority. I suppose they could move in April and direct the Superintendent to make the changes effective immediately. That seems a little chaotic. Alan is the key vote here. I hope he’ll do the right thing.

  4. JosephBiello

    The 3rd item, I think everyone should look at, is the impact of the governor’s budget on the Davis school system:

    This is an extremely sobering set of scenarios.   In particular the presentation (I think it was Bruce Colby, but I am not sure) made 2 extremely sobering statements.

    1) Without measure H funds, the Davis school district would be among the lowest funded districts in the state.

    2) The average California school has half the funding per student as the average Massachusetts school (maybe he didn’t make that point, but it came out at some point).

    The Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) just doesn’t return to our district what we need to run the schools.

    My conclusion is that we are a relatively wealthy district, but we are cheapskates.   I don’t know all the details, but the LCFF  probably exists to make sure all California districts have some minimum funding level.  Wealthier districts should make up the difference with local taxes.   We are not doing enough to make up this difference.











  5. Howard P

    Interesting development… David, were the IP addresses of posters compromised?  Or should we all be looking at whether we have been “back-hacked’… meant as a very serious question…

  6. cindypickett

    David – Thanks for posting this story and thanks for the additional information Joe. The fact that the AIM identification numbers are not being released now and not discussed until April’s board meeting is very disturbing to me. It feels, once again, like the program is being mismanaged and any sort of mismanagement is infuriating especially when children are involved. The parents of this district deserve transparency and coherent, persuasive arguments from the Board and the Superintendent regarding their decision-making.

    What is ironic is that in discussing the budget, Bruce Colby made a point of talking about the importance of looking at past years’ data and using that to project forward each year, while also recognizing that the numbers may change as more data are gathered. We applaud Colby’s foresight and reasoning (i.e., constantly looking at and evaluating the numbers and making changes on the fly to avert financial disaster), but we can’t apply this same logic to AIM?


  7. Tara Diel

    “That would seem to be a very credible threat, as Ms. Wolk is the wife of former Mayor Dan Wolk and the daughter-in-law of Senator Lois Wolk.” What I am reading is that the last name “Wolk” and that she spoke in front of the school board, makes her uniquely qualified to run for a seat on our Board of Education? Many people speak in front of the BOE, but that does not make them candidates for school board. Neither does a last name. Dan Wolk is a super nice guy, but he did lose his last two attempts at running for office.  His last name did not lead to a win. Lois Wolk has been amazing, but a last name clearly does does mean a qualified candidate.

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