Attorney to seek fairness in AIMS
The Arizona Republic
Jul. 2, 2005

Pat Kossan

Attorney Tim Hogan doesn't think it's fair to require students who are struggling with English to pass the high school AIMS test to get a diploma, so he is seeking a court order that would give them a break.

Hogan already won a federal lawsuit forcing the state to put millions of dollars into helping Arizona students who are learning English. Until that money gets flowing into the schools, Hogan doesn't want students who are working hard enough to pass high school courses in a new language to be denied a diploma because they can't pass an exit exam.

Many language learners can speak, write and read enough English to operate in the real world and they work hard to pass core high school courses. But, educators say, they still cannot pass Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards. Educators who support Hogan fear the demand to pass an exit exam would push an entire generation of bright language learners to drop out.

But Arizona's state schools chief Tom Horne said it doesn't make sense to give a high school diploma to a student who can't function in English. "The worst thing you can do to students is send them into the world without being proficient in English."

Hogan, lead attorney for the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, said he understands those who want these kids to learn English well and to learn it quickly.

"They have a point," Hogan said, "and as soon as they decide to adequately and legally fund this education system, I'll agree with them."

Hogan won a federal lawsuit, Flores vs. Arizona, requiring the state to pay to help students learning English to keep up with their academic peers. Thirteen years after the Flores lawsuit was filed, Gov. Janet Napolitano and Arizona lawmakers are still battling over how to satisfy the court demands.

Hogan said he would return to the judge in the Flores case and ask for a court order to delay the AIMS graduation mandate for English-language learners.

Cristian Valdez Facio, 15, is fluent in English and Spanish and is headed for high school in the Phoenix Union district this year. Kids in his Isaac District elementary school who were just learning English counted on him and other friends to translate for them and help them pass their courses, Valdez Facio said.

But no one could help them when these students faced the questions on their reading, writing and math eighth-grade AIMS test, he said.

"Most of them said they guessed," Valdez Facio said. "They couldn't ask for help."

There is no simple answer when it comes to requiring these children to take the high school exit exam, the teenager said.

Without the pressure to pass AIMS, he fears neither the school nor the student would be motivated to make sure they learn.

"They wouldn't get as much education as they need," Valdez Facio said. "If you don't do AIMS classes you won't motivate yourself."

Valdez Facio also said these students need extra help to succeed, such as the tutor he had when he was in first grade and didn't understand a word of English.

The help these students need is expensive, Northern Arizona University education Professor Jon Reyhner said. These children require small classes with better-trained teachers using specially designed materials, such as easy-to-read books for students of all ages. Reyhner said these kids, many of them poor, must learn faster than their middle-class peers, who grew up speaking, reading and writing English.

"It's a race and if we don't reward them for their efforts, they're going to drop out and drop out earlier," Reyhner said.

Joan Mason, who is in charge of language acquisition programs at Phoenix Union High School District, said English learners should be tested and they should be expected to make progress, but learning a language is a lifelong process. Mason said they should not be required to pass a high school AIMS exit exam that is designed for kids who grew up speaking English.

"English-language learners are not proficient in English," Mason said. "If they can pass the AIMS test, they've been miscategorized."

The idea of treating language learners, mostly Spanish speakers, differently from other students irritates Glendale resident Norma Alvarez. In 2000, Alvarez helped sway voters to outlaw bilingual education in Arizona classrooms, requiring all teaching, testing and classroom materials to be in English only.

"In the high schools they have special programs to get them up to par," Alvarez said. "English is something they have to learn and it's something they have to do right away. The Mexicans are not dumber; we're pretty smart. We have to get real; we have to speak English."

Members of the Class of 2006 are the first in Arizona who must pass the reading, writing and math AIMS test to get a diploma and, after three tries, 23,300 still haven't passed. The state said it doesn't yet know how many of those students from the most recent exam are language learners.

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