Payson High School students continue to chip away at the AIMS test they must all pass in order to graduate.
Hopefully, by June everyone still plugging away will have done well enough to get a diploma — repeating last year’s outcome.
“It’s a work in progress, a constant work in progress,” said Vice Principal Anna Van Zile of the constant tinkering with the once controversial, now largely accepted graduation test.
Students start taking the tests in math, reading and writing in their sophomore year and must get a minimum score by the end of their senior year to get a diploma. The state recently added science standards to the AIMS test, but students don’t have to pass that test to get a diploma.
Until last year, the AIMS test also played a big role in the college plans of the state’s stop students. Previously, the state’s three public universities offered money for full-tuition scholarships for students who “exceeded” standards in all three areas. However, buffeted by deep budget cuts the Board of Regents last fall dramatically reduced the amount devoted to the popular “AIMS scholarships.”
That leaves the students just trying get the required minimum scores still sweating the twice-annual chance to retake the tests.
Many students pass the frequently revised test as sophomores and juniors, leaving only a relative handful of seniors still trying to get enough right answers to earn their diploma.
So far, the math test remains the highest hurdle for those last few desperate seniors, Van Zile reported recently to the school board.
Only a few dozen of the roughly 170 seniors still need to pass the test to graduate in June. These are the students who failed the test in their sophomore and junior years and on their first attempt as seniors. They have one more chance in the current school year, although they can take it again in the summer if they fail and still get a diploma.
At Payson High School, last semester 17 seniors took the math test, but only four of them passed. A total of 18 took the reading test and 11 passed. A total of 17 seniors took the writing test and 10 of those passed.
Van Zile said she wasn’t sure how many seniors still must pass one of the three tests in order to graduate, since a single student may have failed multiple tests.
However, the most recent numbers suggest the number of seniors in danger of not graduating stands between 29 and 43 of the 174 seniors that have yet to pass at least one section of the AIMS test. That’s somewhere between 17 percent and 25 percent of the class.
The high-stakes graduation test was intended to ensure that any Arizona student with a high school diploma could read, write and do basic math. The state first adopted the test in 2006, but the failure rate was so high that it provoked years of controversy. Since then, the test has been repeatedly modified — and most schools have worked the standards of the test into their curriculum.
Critics say the state has repeatedly dumbed down the test to make sure that everyone passes. In the process, say critics, the test itself has dumbed down the curriculum, putting too much stress on getting the weakest students through the gate.
On the other hand, supporters say the test has provided a statewide standard, forced the overhaul of curriculums to ensure students all master basic skills and reassured employers that high school graduates have necessary, minimum skills.
Either way, revisions in the tests and changes in curriculum have enabled almost all students to eventually pass the test — with the exception of those who give up and drop out.
Many national studies have linked the adoption of high stakes graduation tests to a rise in the dropout rate, especially among minority students. The conclusion remains controversial, however, with a smaller number of studies suggesting the graduation tests have little impact on overall dropout rates.
Only 82 percent of Payson High School students graduated within four years last year, up from 71 percent in 2006. No one has reported on how large a share of the 18 percent who dropped out couldn’t pass the AIMS test.
The district has put into place various programs to provide extra help and tutoring to students who have trouble passing the AIMS test, starting in their sophomore year.
“We have AIMS math classes that cater to the target objective,” said Van Zile. “We currently have AIMS reading and writing classes as well. The state provides funding for tutoring individuals that have failed the AIMS test, so we are taking advantage of that as well.”
She noted that the whole issue of the AIMS test remains in flux, partly because the state has also opted to participate in a federally-driven process to adopt common core standards nationally. That could replace or augment the state-developed AIMS test with a different or overlapping set of national tests.
“Because of the change in administration (of the state department of education), we’re not sure where (State Superintendent of Schools John) Huppenthal is going to go. Ideally, the idea is to get these kids to pass the first time they take it (in their sophomore year).”