Disadvantaged students lose bid to block AIMS mandate
By Howard Fischer
Tucson, Arizona | Published: http://www.azstarnet.com/sn/education/257230
PHOENIX — A judge has rejected efforts by two public- interest law firms to block the state from using the AIMS test as a graduation requirement.
Maricopa County Superior Court Judge John Buttrick heard evidence that school districts with a higher percentage of economically disadvantaged and minority students had lower passing rates on the reading, math and writing sections of the test.
Plaintiffs said that's because the state doesn't provide enough funds to ensure all students get the education they need and to which they are constitutionally entitled.
But Buttrick said no one proved an absolute link between what programs schools do — and do not — provide and AIMS scores. Without that, he said, there's no constitutional violation.
No decision has been made on an appeal.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of three student groups: the economically disadvantaged, racial and ethnic minorities, and those classified as English-language learners.
According to the lawsuit, students in these groups — about one of every six of high school seniors in Arizona — pass the math, reading and writing sections of AIMS at a lower rate than classmates.
If the state intends to use AIMS as a graduation requirement, it should provide more funding for these students for everything from smaller classes to tutoring, said attorney Ellen Katz of the William E. Morris Institute for Justice.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne said there is a link between socio-economic status and academic achievement.
"But it's not an excuse for anybody," he said. "The teachers need to teach well, the schools need to give good leadership, the students need to study."
And Horne said socio-economic status isn't an excuse not to have to pass AIMS — short for Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards — which is supposed to show that students have learned what is expected of a high school graduate.
"We hold out the same high standards for everybody," he said.
Horne acknowledged that state aid to schools is pretty much equal, about $6,000 for each student, regardless of economic background.
But he said the federal government provides additional cash to districts with high percentages of students living in poverty to help those youngsters with special programs.
Buttrick said the state is constitutionally obligated to provide all schools with enough money to ensure that students have the opportunity to get an education.
But he said the challengers to the state's current funding system never proved that the lack of cash to provide certain programs affected AIMS scores.
For example, he noted that Toni Badone, superintendent of the Yuma Union High School District, testified that her district isn't meeting the needs of its students because of a lack of resources.
But Buttrick said not a single student failed to graduate in 2006 or 2007 because of failure to pass the AIMS test.
And Reyna Olvera, a student at Thomas Jefferson High School in Phoenix, testified about the lack of services at her school. Buttrick noted, though, that Olvera also admitted to a number of unexcused absences "and that she dropped out of her math AIMS class after only a few weeks."
Attorney Tim Hogan of the Center for Law in the Public Interest, who also represented challengers, said he believes Buttrick used the wrong legal standard in his ruling.
He said no one disputed the statistics showing the connection between the AIMS scores at individual schools and the economic status of the students there. What Buttrick apparently wanted, Hogan said, was proof that individual students were unable to get diplomas because of the lack of funds.