State deems failing grades good enough to pass AIMS
The Arizona Republic
May. 13, 2005

Pat Kossan

Try scoring a 59 percent on a reading test, and most high school teachers would flunk you.

But that is now a passing grade on the reading section of the high school AIMS test for the Arizona's Class of 2006. You can now get 60 percent correct on the math section and still pass.

This year's junior class is the first that must pass the reading, writing and math high school AIMS test to get a diploma. They got a considerable break Thursday after state officials reviewed their spring test results and then officially lowered the score needed to pass the exit exam, whose full name is Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards.

With the help of the new, lowered passing scores, and after taking a third crack at the high school AIMS test, an estimated 61 percent of the Class of 2006 passed. That's up from the 43 percent passing rate for the fall 2004 tests.

On Thursday, after two days of deliberations and on the advice of a teacher committee and testing experts, the Arizona State Board of Education reduced the passing score for math to 60 percent correct from 71 percent. It also reduced the passing score for reading to 59 percent correct from 72 percent.

But that isn't the only reason for the jump in the percent of students passing the test.

 The number of students enrolled in the Class of 2006 also fell. It dropped to 63,500 during 2005 spring testing from 67,853 on the first day of the exam in spring 2004.

 State officials made the test easier, better matching the questions to what students are learning in the classroom.

 Districts scrambled to add teacher training, special courses dedicated to getting students to pass the test, and free tutoring.

Now, the Legislature wants to help, too. It was close Thursday night to passing a bill that would raise the AIMS scores of kids who pass core high school classes with A's, B's or C's.

Despite the flurry of efforts to get more kids to pass the exam and get a diploma, lowering scores and adding points for course work will help only the small number of students already close to passing the test, experts said. Students still lagging far behind will have to study their way to a passing grade and do much better on their final two AIMS attempts before graduation day.

Most Arizona State Board of Education members said lowering the scores would look as if they were lowering the bar and backing off high standards for high school graduates, but still they voted 9-1 to do it.

Member Michael Crow, Arizona State University president, did not attend the deliberations or vote.

Only Arizona state schools chief Tom Horne voted against lowering the passing scores and said that students already are improving without the change.

Horne said that about 55 percent of the Class of 2006 would have passed the AIMS without lowering the scores and they have two more times to take it.

"The students already are doing a lot better by virtue of our tutoring programs and the schools' efforts and student motivation," Horne said. "I believe that will be clouded by people focusing on the percent they need to get correct."

But Horne got little backing from fellow members of the State Board of Education. Some questioned the validity of using the ever-changing high school AIMS test as the only door to graduation, while others said the state hasn't fulfilled its duty to reach the poorest students in the poorest and most poorly equipped schools.

State Board President Matthew Diethelm has been a strong supporter of using AIMS as an exit exam, but in the end couldn't imagine keeping nearly half the Class of 2006 from getting a diploma.

Diethelm said he was frustrated that state education officials hadn't done enough to help students at the very bottom of the heap.

"This is the fair and correct thing to do no matter what the perception of those who haven't been involved in the process," Diethelm said.

Jesse Ary, the only African-American and minority on the 11-member board, said more than just lowering the passing score needs to be done for students unable to pass the test.

Ary said the test needs to be carefully examined for cultural bias and that state must spend more time and money on its poorest students.

"The best ways to elevate the best of our students is to find ways to elevate the least of our students," Ary said.

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