Juniors could fail AIMS test and still graduate under bill
Feb. 24, 2005
By Howard Fischer and Shelley Shelton
PHOENIX - A bill with bipartisan support and some interest from the governor could give current high school juniors a chance to graduate next year without passing the AIMS test.
On a 9-1 vote, the House Committee on K-12 Education approved a measure Wednesday to provide an alternative path to getting a high school diploma.
Juniors who failed one or more parts of the AIMS test last year are retaking those sections this week. The Class of 2006 is the first class required to pass the math, writing and reading AIMS test to get a diploma.
Under the legislation, the alternative path won't be automatic. To graduate without passing AIMS, a student would need to:
● Complete all necessary course work with a grade of C or better in required courses.
● Maintain a 95 percent attendance record throughout the senior year.
● Take the AIMS test each of the five times it is offered.
● Participate in at least 75 hours of remedial courses offered during senior year, apart from normal courses, in an effort to improve test scores.
That is more intense than existing requirements, which mandate a student earns 20 credits with a passing grade - anything better than an F - with no requirement to be in school any set number of days.
"I'm in favor of an alternative that makes sense. And I'm not sure that would be a reasonable alternative," said Shelley Schwartz, whose daughter graduated last year from University High School in Tucson Unified School District.
Members of a Senate committee already have endorsed an identical proposal. And Gov. Janet Napolitano, while refusing to comment on this specific legislation, said she believes there needs to be some way for students to graduate without passing AIMS, which she calls a single high-stakes test.
Wednesday's vote came over the objection of state school superintendent Tom Horne, who suggested that what is in HB 2294 is little better than scrapping the test entirely.
"That's social promotion," he said.
"I think the public is fed up with social promotion where the kids go from year to year, whether they've learned anything or not, and then they get their diploma whether they've learned anything or not," Horne said. "The effect is to downgrade the quality of education for everybody."
Educators and parents in Tucson disagreed.
"There is still some question of the validity of the AIMS test," said Rick Haan, interim director of accountability and research for TUSD.
Providing an alternative "does take some of the pressure off the schools, but it also takes some of the hopelessness away from the students" who have otherwise done everything the schools have asked of them, he said.
After Schwartz's daughter took the AIMS test as a sophomore, Schwartz questioned its validity as well.
The writing section was the only part of the test the girl did not pass with an "exceeds" rating, she said.
However, six months later, when she took the SAT II writing test as a junior, she scored a perfect 800, Schwartz said.
"You don't improve that much in such a short time," Schwartz said. When her daughter's SAT II writing grade came in, Schwartz decided the AIMS test had problems, she said.
Many intelligent, deserving students don't test well, said Patrick Nelson, associate superintendent for Amphitheater Public Schools.
"With the AIMS test, you're looking at a one-size-fits-all for all students," he said.
With the proposed alternative, "the mechanism remains in place to support kids as much as humanly possible to pass the AIMS test" while giving them the opportunity to graduate if they don't pass in the end, he said.
TUSD parent Jon Cook agreed.
"I don't know if there's one test you can say will cover every child out there," said Cook, who has two children attending schools in TUSD. "Not every child responds to tests or exams in the same manner."
It's good to have an alternative for kids who can't pass the test, and expecting all students to be able to meet the same requirements is "pie in the sky," he said.
Some teenagers have to work, and some have more support at home than others do, said Debbie Perry, who has three children in TUSD.
"If you do everything you can, to enhance that child, and unfortunately the child still can't pass the AIMS test, what are you going to do?" she asked.
"If you tell a child they can never measure up, they're not going to. They've been labeled."
Children who have tried everything to the best of their abilities should be allowed to move forward, she said.
Horne found only a single supporter on the committee for his belief that no diploma should be issued to a student who cannot pass the math, reading and writing sections of the test, more formally known as Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards.
"I'd want to know as an employer in this state that the person who shows up with that piece of paper has some sort of high school abilities," said Rep. John Allen, R-Phoenix, the only Republican on the committee to vote against the bill. He said companies need to have confidence that someone with an Arizona high school diploma has the abilities to perform the job.
Other legislators, however, said something needs to change to ensure that a large percentage of the students in the Class of 2006 do not complete 12 years of school but find they don't get a diploma because they weren't able to pass all three sections of AIMS. Rep. David Lujan, D-Phoenix, said there is a "potential crisis" on the horizon.
He said there is a particular problem with students who have limited English skills, a problem he attributes to the failure of the Legislature to adequately fund programs to provide proficiency in the language. Lujan also warned that a lawsuit is likely if a large percentage of "English language learners" fail to graduate.
But Horne said all school districts have certified they are teaching the information that is on the test.
Horne acknowledged the high failure rate, particularly on the math test. But he said at least part of that is because the questions, until now, have been prepared by an out-of-state consultant. When the test is offered again in April, all questions will have been created by Arizona teachers.
Napolitano said she never favored using a single test as a graduation requirement.
"There are lots of different, alternative ways to measure whether a student has academically achieved what they need to achieve to get a state diploma," she said.
"Many states have a high-stakes test. But it's not a single high-stakes test. They have alternatives as well."
Napolitano warned high school juniors and those in the classes behind that they shouldn't count on this bill - or any other - surviving the entire legislative process, at least not yet.
"It's the law," she said. "You've got to pass it. You'd better buckle down and study and pass the test."
● Contact reporter Shelley Shelton at 434-4078 at sshelton@azstarnet.com