Proposal lets would-be graduates plump up their scores with grade-based bonus points
April 29, 2005
 By Howard Fischer
PHOENIX - Juniors in Arizona schools may be able to graduate next year without passing AIMS, under the terms of a deal being negotiated at the Capitol.
They just would have to come close to passing the test.
The proposal would maintain the requirement that students beginning with the class of 2006 still have to take the high-stakes test of their reading, writing and math skills. And they still would have to try to do well.
But students could use their grades as "bonus points" that could be traded for additional points on the AIMS test.
A's would be worth more than B's, and on down the line. The exact value of each grade still has to be worked out.
"Those points would equate to points that could be added to your AIMS test score that could get you over the hump," said Sen. Thayer Verschoor, R-Gilbert. He has been the prime proponent in the Senate of an alternative path to graduation.
The concept has the approval of Senate President Ken Bennett. The Prescott Republican has used his position to block senators from even debating any proposal that would allow students to get a diploma without passing the AIMS test.
Verschoor said he still prefers something with a little more flexibility. But he said he can live with this plan.
The deal could break the legislative stalemate over the issue. But it faces opposition from one player outside the legislative process: state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne.
If lawmakers go along anyway, the plan would be good news for a large number of the approximately 63,500 students in the current junior class.
Horne said that, at this point, 72 percent of students have passed the reading portion of the test, known more formally as Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards, and 78 percent have a passing score on writing.
Math has been a bit more difficult: While the first test showed only 37 percent passed, the second boosted that figure to 50 percent. And Horne said that, by the fifth test, he expects 90 percent of students will have passing scores on all three sections.
How many more might be spared the possibility of completing 12 years of education but not getting a diploma remains uncertain. Bennett said the legislation would leave it up to the state Board of Education to decide how many points each grade is worth.
Jamil Anouti, a junior at Amphitheater High School, said the possibility of using grades to boost AIMS scores could help students who were close to passing the exam.
Anouti, who passed the test, said several of his friends missed the cutoff for passing the test by only a few points.
Still, he's skeptical of the idea.
"I guess you would say that's better, but it's not really solving the problem," Anouti said. "The fact is we still have to pass this ridiculous test."
Classes are forced to stop teaching curriculum in order to focus on the test, Anouti said.
Also, having one test to determine whether students get a diploma is too much pressure, Anouti said. Students could be sick the day of the tests or could have a bad day, he said.
"I think some people are on the border and this would help them a lot," Anouti said. "This would make them feel better."
Bennett said it would not be unreasonable for a student with a B average to be able to get enough bonus points to add 20 percent to a score.
Bennett said, though, it would not be structured in a way to let students with good grades get enough points to ignore the test entirely.
Horne said he is opposed to the plan - even if that means close to one out of 10 seniors don't get their diplomas.
"I feel that the important thing is for the students to acquire the skills that they're going to need for the rest of their lives," he said. "And the AIMS test is an indicator to show whether they've got those skills or not."
Coming close, he said, is not the same as proving students know what they should.
Horne said he doesn't expect students to be able to answer every question. But he said 144 Arizona teachers will meet next month to determine what will be the passing score - meaning the level of knowledge they believe is necessary.
As for those students who don't pass, Horne pointed out he already has convinced the state Board of Education to permit students to continue taking the test even after they complete their senior year. He said that extended process is not unprecedented, saying 4 percent of high schoolers already take five years to graduate.
Simply coming close to the passing score and making up the bonus points with grades would not be the only requirement.
The proposal also would require students to take the test each of the five times it is offered. And he said those who do not pass during the first few times also would have to enroll in special remedial classes to help tutor them.
● Star reporter Aaron Mackey contributed to this story.