At Payson High School last week, students took "make or break" competency tests, knowing they must pass them to graduate.
Earning "Exceeds the Standards" or "Meets the Standards" grades on the highly controversial Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards (AIMS) is now a graduation requirement for the Class of 2006 and all those that follow.
The seniors who did not pass the most recent test will have one more opportunity to pass -- during spring testing.
Failing juniors have three more chances -- in the spring and two testing dates next school year when they are seniors.
Many students at PHS have already passed AIMS and did not have to participate in last week's testing.
"We had 111 students take the writing, 93 the reading and 135 the math," PHS guidance counselor Don Heizer said.
All of those who took AIMS, however, might not have been students who previously failed the test.
Some took it in the hope of earning a scholarship to any of the three state universities that will be awarded those who earn good grades and an excellent AIMS score. The Arizona Board of Regents implemented the new scholarship program last year.
AIMS raises serious questions
Although it was testing business as usual last week at Payson High and other schools around the state, there are educators, parents and school board members who doubt the validity of AIMS and question whether students should be required to pass a single high-stakes test to graduate.
Arizona School Board Association research analyst Michael T. Martin is among those challenging the tests.
In a report to ASBA, Martin wrote, "Many AIMS test questions are poorly written, vague or highly subjective.
"A test of this importance should be written, so that it is clear what the question is asking, and should have one clearly correct answer."
Martin chastises those who wrote AIMS, saying, "It is disheartening to find that a test given such power and scope in Arizona should evidence such casual indifference toward professionals and validity."
At Payson High School, principal Roy Sandoval adamantly opposes AIMS-like tests because of the stress, time and money involved in taking and administering them.
"The tremendous amount of money being spent could better be used to improve teachers and add programs," he said.
Among the state money allocated to AIMS was $10 million for academic support and tutoring after thousands of students failed the test two years ago.
Sandoval argues that if that money had been used for teacher salaries he would be able to recruit and keep some of the finest young teachers in the profession.
"Days before school opened, I was recruiting two math teachers and had zero applicants," he said. "Our salaries are so low, teachers don't want to come to rural Arizona."
Also on the offensive against AIMS is the William E. Morris Institute for Justice -- a private nonprofit organization created to advocate on behalf of low-income Arizonans.
In a report to the Senate Education Committee, the institute concluded that the federal law "No Child Left Behind" does not require a passing grade on a competency test for high school graduation. The state department of education has claimed AIMS is in response to No Child Left Behind mandates.
Also, the institute said there is minimal evidence AIMS is a valid or reliable test. The test has a discriminatory impact on students of color, and leaders in the education testing community have advised against using a single test as a graduation requirement.
A 1999 U.S. Department of Education research -- Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing -- found, "In educational settings, a decision or characterization that will have a major impact on a student should not be made on the basis of a single test score."
In a 2002 Arizona State University study, lead author Aubrey Ameriin said, "In theory, high-stakes tests should work, because they advance the notions of high standards and accountability.
"But students are being trained so narrowly because of it, they are having a hard time understanding general problem solving."
Ameriin, who said she supported high-stakes tests before conducting her research, also said that due to the tremendous pressure teachers feel under AIMS, they are focusing so intently on the test they are neglecting other things equally as important.
There are those in the state political arena who also question the way AIMS tests have been mandated.
"AIMS has been a controversial thing for 10, 12 years," Arizona Sen. Jake Flake recently told a Payson audience. "(AIMS) was probably the biggest mess the state of Arizona has ever got into."
So, with the mounting controversy and opposition to AIMS, why do students continue to take it?
"It's mandated -- there is no choice," Sandoval said.
The biggest backer of the tests has been Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne.
At most of his public appearances since his election, Horne has told audiences he is "100 percent" committed to continuing the testing. During his campaign for office three years ago, he supported making AIMS a requirement for graduation.
Horne has argued the test improves achievement and motivates students, parents and teachers.
Two bills, HB 2294 and SB 1069, were introduced last year that would prohibit the requirement of a passing score on an AIMS test in order to graduate from an Arizona public school. The bills, however, died in committee.