Taking Aims

As students continue to miss the mark, educators rethink their approach

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The role that the AIMS graduation test will play in Arizona education remains uncertain, with the futures of thousands of students hanging in the balance.

Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards the AIMS test was initiated by Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham-Keegan to replace the state's ASAP test, which didn't accurately measure student learning abilities.

While many professional educators urged Keegan to move slowly, then-Governor Fife Symington, sensing growing political momentum for public school accountability, pressured Keegan and the state Board of Education to act swiftly.

When Arizona students took the first official AIMS test in 1999, nine out of 10 sophomores failed the math test they were told they would have to pass to graduate. The math graduation requirement was later postponed due to pressure from worried parents and grandparents.

"I have no idea where it's going to go anymore, and that's one of the biggest problems with it," Payson School Superintendent Herb Weissenfels said. "You kind of have to hang in there and keep teaching toward it, but you don't know if it is really going to exist."

In April 2000, eight out of 10 sophomores failed the math test and seven out of 10 failed the writing test. While Payson High School students scored slightly above the state average, large majorities still failed the math and writing sections.

Among all Arizona sophomores, 68 percent met or exceeded the standard for reading, 17 percent for math, and 33 percent for writing.

By comparison, the average of Payson High School sophomores was 74 percent for reading, 15 percent for math, and 33 percent for writing.

Bill Lawson, director of curriculum for the Payson Unified School District, said the district's scores were up slightly over the previous year, but not significantly.

"While we are satisfied that we compare favorably with other districts in the state," he said, "it's hard to get real excited when well over half of our students are not meeting minimum standards in writing and math."

Between the time the 2000 tests were taken and the scores were released, the state Board of Education decided to postpone the graduation requirement for the math test to 2004. But the deadline for passing the reading and writing tests remains 2002.

Further complicating the issue:

Test dates were changed repeatedly so confusion reigned among teachers and students about what tests needed to be taken when.

It took months from the time the tests were taken to the time the scores were released, preventing teachers from making timely use of the results.

After the release of the latest round of scores in November, Keegan announced that she was putting the AIMS graduation requirements on hold to find out when teachers and administrators think their students will be ready to pass the tests. Based on their recommendations, the state board will set a new date to reinstitute the graduation requirement.

Meanwhile, the state legislature responded to pressure from parents and grandparents to ease graduation requirements by holding a round of public hearings on AIMS.

Rep. Dan Schottel (R-Tucson), who chaired 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.

"A two diploma system is not unheard of," Lawson 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."

As the debate continues, students will continue to take the AIMS test.

"We've changed a lot of the high school curriculum to meet the standards in math, reading and writing," Weissenfels said. "We've also focused on those things in the elementary schools, which is good. But if we're only doing it so our kids do well on the test, that causes concern. And if that's what we're doing and there really isn't going to be a test, then you start wondering exactly what we are doing."

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