Special ed gets AIMS break
The Arizona Republic
Feb. 10, 2005
Goddard says test not mandatory for diploma

Ofelia Madrid
Special-education students who pass their high school classes should still be able to graduate even if they don't pass the AIMS test, Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard said in a legal opinion Wednesday.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne said he will abide by the opinion, meaning that special-education students, who make up an estimated 10 percent of Arizona's school population, will be able to graduate with regular diplomas.

Parents of special-education students were relieved to hear the news.

Linda Leisner of Phoenix, whose daughter is a junior at Barry Goldwater High School, was worried her daughter wouldn't graduate next year. "I thought, 'How am I going to tell her you can't walk with your class?' " Leisner said. "This is good news."

Last fall, The Arizona Republic found that nearly all 6,000 Arizona juniors in special-education classes were failing at least one portion of the high school exit exam and in danger of not graduating.

A passing score on all three portions of the test, also known as Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards, is required for all high school students starting with the Class of 2006.

Goddard's opinion means local districts can develop graduation requirements for students enrolled in special-education programs.

The requirements would take into consideration a student's individual education program, which is different for each student, and would be consistent with the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Horne asked Goddard several months ago if it was legal for special-education students who had met their Individual Education Plan goals but had not passed AIMS to receive a diploma.

'Not fair'

"The idea is that, if they study hard enough, some special-education students will be able to pass (the AIMS test). But for those who neurologically can't pass it, it's not fair to require them to do it," Horne said.

Goddard was out of town Wednesday, and a spokeswoman said he would not comment further on the opinion.

About 6,000 special-education juniors took the test last spring as sophomores.

Only 6 percent, or about 360, who were tested passed math; 17 percent met reading requirements; and 20 percent passed writing.

Many of those students have learning disabilities, often not obvious, that make it difficult to process information in traditional ways.

Their learning levels are above third grade but below 10th grade.

Although many of the learning-disabled students receive accommodations, such as being allowed to take the test in a room by themselves or use calculators on the math portion, parents argued that their children aren't being taught the material on the test.

Variations by district

Chris Usher, a Scottsdale mother of a learning-disabled junior, said the opinion shows that passing the exam is not an appropriate requirement for special-education students.

"A one-size-fits-all education requirement does not adequately represent what our students have learned," she said.

Usher is still concerned that graduation criteria will be different depending on the school district.

She worked with state Sen. Toni Hellon to put together a bill that exempts special-education students from the AIMS test.

"We are optimistic that the bills before the Legislature will further clarify all of these issues," Usher said.