Senate chief defends AIMS
The Arizona Republic
Feb. 25, 2005
Vows to block move to weaken requirement
Chip Scutari

Arizona's state Senate president has vowed to stop the momentum of a legislative move to let many high school students graduate without passing the AIMS test.

Sen. Ken Bennett said he would prevent the Senate from debating a plan that has gained support among Democrats and some conservative Republicans who want to decrease the state's control over local schools. Sen. Thayer Verschoor and Rep. Andy Biggs, both Gilbert Republicans, are sponsoring the measure, saying the exam has been a costly political experiment that has taken away autonomy from local school boards.

"I don't support that bill," Bennett told The Arizona Republic. "There will be no floor debate on this bill as it is." Despite Bennett's feelings, Verschoor and Biggs said they would keep pushing for their bill. They appear to have the support of about half of the Senate and a large majority of the House.

Bennett and other senators who support using AIMS as a graduation component test want to send a message to high school students throughout the state: Don't pay too much attention to the debate over the test.

"Keep on studying, don't stop," said Sen. Dean Martin, a Phoenix Republican. "Don't look for relief from the Legislature. No matter what we do, students have to learn these things in order to succeed and have a high-paying job and live the American dream."

In an interview this week, Bennett said he would halt any attempts to dismantle AIMS as a graduation requirement unless there are other legitimate alternatives in place, such as a specified score on college placement exams such as the Scholastic Assessment Test.

"I don't support the notion of throwing our hands up," the Prescott Republican said. "Instead of having everyone go through one doorway, I think there ought to be multiple doorways. But they all should represent the same accomplishment of an academic standard."

For parents and students, the bottom line is this: Passing the AIMS test stands between 37,000 current Arizona high school juniors and their high school diplomas. That's about 57 percent of the Class of 2006, the first class in state history whose students must pass the reading, writing and math sections of the achievement test or they will not graduate. The other 43 percent already have passed the test.

With 2006 looming, parents, teachers, educators and lawmakers are paying close attention to the battle over Arizona's high school graduation exam.

While lawmakers debate AIMS, students keep taking the test. Reaction among them is mixed just like at the Legislature.

"I don't mind taking AIMS. I think it helps kids when they go into college," said Mandi Kaech, 16, a junior at Washington High School in the Glendale Union High School District. "I think it should have been part of the curriculum long ago. Everybody should have to pass it."

House Speaker Jim Weiers is optimistic that a compromise on AIMS can be worked out, one that keeps high standards but allows more flexibility for students. He said the 2006 timeline and the great interest surrounding AIMS warrant a full-scale debate.

"Just because you've traveled in the wrong direction for a long time doesn't mean you can't go back and work on it," Weiers, R-Phoenix, said. "But I wouldn't tell any kids to stop preparing for the test. Accept the fact that it's still here. It may not be removed."

Meanwhile, a plan to eliminate AIMS as a graduation requirement continues to move and gain momentum in the House. An unlikely alliance of East Valley conservatives and Democrats are still pushing to drop the school achievement test before students in the Class of 2006 are denied diplomas because they can't pass it. Originally, the Class of 2001 was expected to pass AIMS to graduate.

On Wednesday, that strange brew of support was on display when Biggs, a Gilbert conservative, and Rep. Ted Downing, a Tucson liberal, spoke in favor of a bill that would let disabled and special-education students graduate without passing AIMS. That bill, an amended version of House Bill 2294, would also let students who meet other criteria - including near-perfect attendance, maintaining a C average and participating in senior-year tutoring - get a diploma without passing AIMS.

The momentum might be squeezed in the 30-member Senate, whose members are all over the map on AIMS.

Bennett, a one-time president of the state Board of Education, said he speaks at lots of high schools and tell students that many jobs require their employees to pass tests.

"First of all, I don't want to send a signal to kids that two years before we're supposed to be at the finish line that we're going to give up on the race," Bennett said. "We shouldn't be retreating from an assessment that is trying to determine whether a student can perform minimum standards."

Biggs said the exam has become embroiled in politics. He said that even determining the passing grade, called the cut score, has become whatever is "politically acceptable to the public."

"We no longer have standards associated with the ultimate objective," Biggs said.

Next week, House Republicans and Democrats will probably discuss an amended version of Biggs' bill. The Senate does not have any action scheduled on Verschoor's.