Another test for AIMS requirement
The Arizona Republic
Nov. 13, 2004
Parents of learning disabled students ready to press

Ofelia Madrid and Anne Ryman

Based on experience in other states, Arizona could face a lot of angry parents if it refuses to relax AIMS test requirements for learning disabled students.

In Massachusetts, Indiana, California, Oregon and Alaska, parents of learning disabled students have sued over high school exit exams. Florida changed its requirements last year to avoid lawsuits.

The lawsuits have cost states thousands of dollars and left parents, like many in Arizona, in limbo as they worry about whether their children will get high school diplomas and get good jobs.

Arizona is just beginning to feel the parental heat. About 6,000 learning disabled students in the class of 2006 who took the AIMS test failed in large numbers and are in danger of not graduating. They are high school juniors in special education classes, but they test below a 10th-grade level.

Arizona requires all students who test above the third-grade level to take AIMS.

Parental pressure has been so great that many other states have made changes:

Nevada offers a different diploma for learning disabled students. It doesn't require passing an exit exam.

Oregon allows a school panel to decide whether a learning disabled student should take its test.

California gives one test to all students, but learning disabled students can get help such as having the test read to them or the use of a calculator. While they receive an "invalid score," their school board may give them a diploma.

Alaska lets severely disabled students who fail the exit exam have their schoolwork judged by a body of experts instead of being forced to retake the exam.

Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne is considering making changes here, too. Last spring, about 6,000 learning disabled students took the AIMS test and 94 percent failed. The students have learning disabilities often not obvious that make it difficult to process information. Some have strong visual skills but stumble when they write.

Horne is consulting with the Arizona Attorney General's Office to see if learning disabled students can receive a diploma without passing AIMS providing they meet individual education goals. One possibility is allowing them to get diplomas, but with stickers indicating whether they passed or failed.

Any change would have to be approved by the Arizona State Board of Education.

Many parents want a modified test that would be easier for their children to pass.

"A lot of these states that institute high-stakes tests make some very large flaws in the beginning," said Jonathan Doll, a Texas teacher who started a group called Educational Equity to help parents.

The problem is that exit exams aren't designed for learning disabled students, he said. States could save money on lawsuits if officials recognized this and offered more alternatives from the start, he said.

Some of the lawsuits have resulted in settlements that are favorable to students, and others, such as in Massachusetts, are pending.

Doll said Arizona's requirement that students who test above a third-grade level must take AIMS is flawed because it means a student with elementary skills is expected to pass a high school exam.

"That's an unfair expectation on a population of students who have no control over the intellect they were given," he said.

A more reasonable expectation is leaving the decision to take the AIMS test up to a school panel that includes the principal, teacher and parents of the disabled student, he said. This is happening in some states, including Oregon.

Many states allow schoolteachers to give disabled students help in certain cases, including extra time to take the test or reading the test to them. Extra help isn't enough for all learning disabled students, Doll said.

The Washington-D.C.-based Center on Education Policy, surveyed the 25 states with exit exams and said all offer some help for students with disabilities. The center says Nevada is the only state to give a different diploma to students with learning disabilities.

Rich Robison, executive director of the Federation for Children with Special Needs in Boston, said that it's common for parents to oppose exit exams but he sees some benefit even for learning disabled students.

What was discovered in Massachusetts where all students take the same test, Robison said, is that learning disabled students weren't being taught the same material as the rest of the students. They weren't taught the material needed to pass the exit exam.

His organization pushed for changes to the special-education curriculum.

Now that state's learning disabled students are passing at rates some never thought possible, he said. According to the department of education, 66 percent of the learning disabled students passed the English part and 59 percent passed math in the class of 2006.

"Even though it's painful to some, overall it's been a positive experience," Robison said.

Reach the reporters at ofelia.madrid@arizonarepublic.com or (602) 444-6879 and anne.ryman@arizonarepublic.com or (602) 444-6881.