State Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham Keegan gave juniors at Payson High and around the state an early Christmas gift when she announced that the AIMS graduation test has been put on hold.
"To say they were ecstatic is an understatement," said PHS Principal Phil Gille, "and so am I. Until this happened, quite a few of them were pretty disheartened."
Under the old rules, this year's juniors would have had to pass the writing and reading portions of the test to graduate next year. The math test had already been deemed too difficult and had been postponed as a graduation requirement until 2004.
In the most recent round of testing for which results are available, 74 percent of current PHS juniors passed the reading test, but only 33 percent passed the writing test. This compares to a statewide average of 68 percent for reading and 33 percent for writing.
Only 17 percent of PHS juniors passed the math test, compared with 15 percent statewide.
Keegan's decision, which was approved by the state board of education Monday, calls for input from teachers and administrators regarding when they think they will be ready for the state to implement the graduation test. Based on their recommendations, the state board will set a new date to reinstitute the graduation requirement.
In the meantime, Keegan said, students will continue to take the AIMS Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards test, with the results being used to punish or reward school districts. Teachers could get raises at schools where test scores improve, and the state board will ask the Legislature for approval to shut down or take over schools where scores do not improve.
Keegan emphasized that this is not the beginning of the end for the AIMS test, as some parents and educators are suggesting.
"We're not asking if, but when," Keegan said during a news conference called to announce the change. "If anyone comes back to us and says, 'Never,' we won't listen."
PUSD Curriculum Director Bill Lawson said he thinks Keegan is doing the right thing.
"We don't object to standards," Lawson said, "not even to AIMS. Implementation has been the big drawback all along."
Gille's objection is philosophical.
"I taught overseas, and I believe in accountability testing," the principal said. "I believe in what they're doing in Australia and Russia and Germany and Japan and Czechoslovakia."
Under those systems, Gille said, students have to meet standards that are realistic for their ability levels and that match their career interests.
"If we had a system similar to overseas, it would determine where kids should go next to a nursing school, to EAC, to DeVry (Institute of Technology)," he said.
"What we were being asked to do is take away all the vocational classes and job preparation so we can get everybody reading at a 12th-grade level. Then a kid goes to work at McDonald's and a year later he's back reading at an eighth-grade level."
The result, he said, was a feeling of futility for students who find school a real challenge in the first place.
"We were forced to add numerous writing and reading classes and additional math classes, so a kid who doesn't enjoy school in the first place ends up in three English classes and two math classes," Gille said.
The state Legislature, which back in the mid-1990s demanded the accountability that led to the AIMS test, is still in the picture. While many of the legislators who insisted on accountability are gone, the current group is being pressured by parents and grandparents to ease graduation requirements.
The Legislature has scheduled a public hearing on AIMS for 3 p.m. Wednesday, when about 100 people have signed up to speak. Rep. Dan Schottel (R-Tucson), who will chair the hearings, thinks a temporary solution might be two diplomas one for those who pass the AIMS test and another for those who don't.
Lawson thinks he might be on to something.
"A two-diploma system is not unheard of," he said. "New York students take the Regency Exam, and there is a diploma for those who pass and a diploma for those who don't."
Schottel, who supports AIMS testing in principle, thinks the test needs to be made more practical and understandable to students.
For Lawson, that is the key to determining when AIMS should be reinstated as a graduation requirement.
"We have been improving each year here in Payson, and how long it takes to put it back in depends on what they do as far as tweaking the test," he said.
Ideally, Lawson thinks, it won't happen until those first exposed to the standards in the third grade graduate.
"We now have our curriculum aligned, and our kids are being exposed to the language that is involved," he said.
"We need to give our kids a chance at the third-grade, fourth-grade, fifth-grade levels certainly before they reach the 10th grade.
Gille objects to the loss of local control that the statewide test has brought.
"I believe in the local school board," he said. "They've taken away the right of the local school board to decide what is best for the children of this community, and that's too bad."