AIMS' moving target gives Arizona an F
Arizona Republic
May. 1, 2005 12:00 AM

Robert Robb columnist

As the day of reckoning approaches for AIMS as a high school graduation requirement, the right approach becomes increasingly obvious. Unfortunately, the right approach still doesn't have a champion of consequence.

National research indicates that an accountability regimen, in which schools and student performance are measured by tests, does improve student learning, at least modestly and over time.

But Arizona has badly screwed up its accountability regimen. It has been a constantly moving target for schools and students.

The most visible accountability measure is passage of the AIMS test as a high school graduation requirement. After being much delayed, this requirement is supposed to finally go into effect for next year's senior class.

If there is to be a high school graduation test, it should be a settled target several years in advance, so students and schools know what level of achievement is required.

Instead, the high school AIMS test remains, even today, a moving target. The level of math being tested, and what constitutes a passing grade, is still being revised.

Meanwhile, the story in the field is not good. Less than half of next year's seniors have passed AIMS so far. About a fifth of the class falls well below meeting the standards.

Minorities are particularly in danger of not graduating. While about half of Whites have passed AIMS, more than three-quarters of Latinos, Blacks and Native Americans have not. Minorities constitute 70 percent of those who fall far below standards.

These figures obviously put pressure on the test. Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne has consistently said that at the end of the day, he expects 90 percent of Arizona high school students to pass AIMS. And, indeed, that's about the passage rate in other states with a high school graduation test.

But in those states, that figure has frequently been reached by making the test easier to pass. And the suspicion that the same is taking place in Arizona is unavoidable.

Thus far, the debate has been between those who want to keep the graduation requirement intact and those who want to abolish it entirely. There are reports of a legislative compromise percolating, which would permit those close to passing AIMS who otherwise have good academic records to still graduate.

The right approach is revealed by stepping back a bit. Arizona should have a high school graduation test based upon what high school graduates should know, not one diluted to accommodate a politically acceptable passage rate. And a high school diploma should reflect what students have accomplished.

The obvious solution is a dual-diploma system: one reflecting the passage of the high school graduation test, the other the fulfillment of other graduation requirements but not passage of the test.

Those who pass the test have demonstrated a competency that those who don't pass it haven't. And those who complete the other graduation requirements have accomplished something those who dropped out have not.

Employers and universities would be free to determine the value of the respective diplomas. And markets are better at doing that than politicians.

The accountability system for schools has been similarly bollixed. ThinkAZ recently published an excellent paper explaining the state's ranking system for schools. The paper looks carefully at how two seemingly dissimilar schools, one whose students generally fail to meet state standards and one whose students generally meet or exceed them, end up with the same ranking by the state.

The state ranks schools into one of five categories: "failing," "underperforming," "performing," "highly performing" or "excelling." Schools get points in a variety of subcategories, based upon various formulas. And some of the formulas have formulas. It's more than a mere mortal can follow, much less understand.

What's the point of an accountability regimen that is incomprehensible to parents, taxpayers and probably most teachers and even administrators?

To compound the confusion, the federal government has a ranking system of its own, which is producing results very different than the state's.

There's a common theme to the failure of the state's accountability system for both students and schools: too much complexity, too much state control.

The state has a role to play in ensuring that information is disseminated: how individual students perform compared to state standards and to other students nationally; whether high school graduates have demonstrated competency; how students in particular schools are performing generally; and whether a school's trend line is toward improvement or decline.

But then the state should let others - parents, taxpayers, students, employers, universities, school boards, administrators and teachers - decide what to do with and about the information.

Right now, the state's accountability regimen is flunking the test of practical utility.

Reach Robb at or (602) 444-8472. His column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.