8,000 down to AIMS wire
The Arizona Republic
Dec. 21, 2005

2,500 to 5,000 will fail and get no diploma, state predicts

Pat Kossan

After four tries at the AIMS test, more than 18,000 seniors are heading down the last stretch of high school knowing they must pass the test or be denied a diploma, state officials revealed Tuesday.

In the end, by May, about 2,500 to 5,000 will fall short because of AIMS, the state predicts, although the estimates are rough. The picture unfolded with Tuesday's release of the fall exit-exam scores.

With the AIMS-casualty risk now clearer, the anxiety level shoots up.

For students, it is the prospect of a stigma, of failing and having to come back after May to pass the test or get a makeup diploma. Even if they pass all their courses, they may not be able to march in graduation ceremonies at some schools. They can't even order a cap and gown.

For parents, it is the fear of heartbreak and finding a way to motivate their kids to run hard again at the AIMS hurdle. Relatives will be asking about graduation parties.

For educators, it is frustration, made worse by substantial efforts to give special assistance to kids who haven't passed Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards. They will see apathy set in, too, as more than half of the 18,000-plus seniors are projected to drop out.

The Arizona Republic went to one school to listen: Metro Tech High School in west-central Phoenix, with 318 mostly Latino seniors and a principal close to retirement.

But Frank Rasmussen is not going soft in his last years. He is looking for any way - threats, carrots, a little pushing, extra programs - to motivate kids to get a diploma.

A principal's frustration
There will be no ceremony of any kind, no made-up certificates for seniors who don't pass AIMS at Metro Tech.

"What does that do for a kid who worked his butt off for four years and earned it?" Rasmussen asks as he gets up from a table in his office to find copies of letters he sent to parents when the school year began. He made it clear to the 50 percent of his seniors who hadn't passed AIMS by August:
Pass the test or stay home on graduation day.

Rasmussen, a neat man with gray hair, slaps down three versions of 178 warning letters he sent to their parents.

The letters state their kids will not be permitted to order a cap and gown or invitations because it's unlikely they will get a diploma at the ceremony. It announces a "mandatory" meeting to talk to parents about special classes and free tutoring for their kids.

Thirty-five parents showed up.

Rasmussen went straight to the students. He looked out at their attentive faces as he explained exactly what would happen if they didn't pass the test. He told them not to give up hope, as free tutoring would be available every morning of their fall break before the next AIMS test.

Twenty showed up for tutoring.

Then he held a seniors-only meeting to talk about graduation. Caps and gowns could be ordered. Those who had not passed AIMS were not invited.

That would get their attention, he thought.

Reaction was muted. One of the seniors said to him, "Oh, man, that's cold."
Rasmussen replied, "How much colder is it going to be when you paid out this money and can't use it this spring?"

Rasmussen, who has been in education for 40 years, took charge of Metro Tech four years ago. He is nearing retirement, and this could be his last year on a campus.

"This year is so special because these kids came in when I did," he says.
"These are my babies."

If the principal can't get his babies through AIMS, he isn't above finding a way around it.

Last spring, he had his counselors start working with 82 seniors to push them through enough coursework to graduate in December. It's the last chance for seniors to avoid the AIMS requirement. Teachers stayed late. Classes were rearranged to make it work. As of this week, it appeared 79 kids were on track to graduate this month.

Other kids got a different break. On Friday, a federal judge exempted Arizona students still struggling to learn English from having to pass AIMS.
If the decision holds, about 24 of Rasmussen's seniors will get a bye. But Rasmussen says he is not counting on the decision to save those kids: "I can't afford to."

A mechanic's dilemma
In October, when Metro Tech senior Victor Lopez wasn't allowed to stand in line with classmates and order a cap and gown or invitations, it finally hit
him: "I felt I might not graduate. It made me worry."

Lopez, 17, has passed four years of classes on his way to becoming an automobile technician. He hadn't passed any section of the high school AIMS test. He was worried enough to attend four hours of tutoring Saturday mornings before he took the test again in October. But he still hasn't passed.

Now, his emotions are rocking from one extreme to another.

Lopez talks about dropping out: "I just know I'll be all right on my own.
I'll be good. I could work at a warehouse. Something you don't need a high school diploma for."

Then he says it's important to be the kind of person who doesn't give up. He thinks of his parents and older sister, a high school graduate who sits with him at night sometimes and helps him with homework. They want him to get a diploma and make it on his own.

"They ask me if I think I'm going to pass," Lopez says. They don't like his talk of dropping out. His mother wants to plan a graduation party. "I'll tell them, 'Wait until I graduate.' They tell me, 'Try hard, because nothing comes easy.'"

A teen mom's ambition
Angelica Fiese, 17, just couldn't seem to pass the AIMS math section, so she packed her schedule with extra classes to try to earn her diploma by the end of December. She wants to be a construction manager, or maybe a dentist.

"It's easier for me, too," Fiese says about graduating early, "because I'm a teen mother, and I'm able to get a job and get to community college sooner."
Fiese, the mother of 8-month-old Adam, says her friends aren't as concerned.

"I don't see them say, 'I have to work harder,' " Fiese says. "I see them graduating in December just to escape. I know people from other schools who dropped out."

Graduation is important to Fiese because she wants to prove her family wrong.

"They were expecting me to drop out," Fiese says.

Days before receiving her 2005 diploma, Fiese found out she passed the AIMS math section when she retook it in October.

The senior and the bribe
A few weeks ago, all that stood between David Varela, 18, and his high
school graduation was the writing section of the AIMS test. Varela found out
recently that he had passed. Now it looks as if he will be the first in his
family to finish high school.

"It's what you've been doing for four years, waiting for that day," Varela
says. "It would be my fault if I didn't graduate because I didn't try my

His parents have been pushing him, and Rasmussen, the principal, will allow
him to order his cap and gown in January. That's all great, but the diploma
represents something far more crucial to Varela than pleasing his family or
walking with classmates: "If I don't graduate, I won't get a car."

A truck, really. His parents are holding the keys to a 1971 Chevy pickup.

"I have to show them a diploma before I get the keys."

A principal's job
Rasmussen has been through dozens of graduation ceremonies during his
40-year career. And he can picture Metro Tech's next May.

Students will gather inside the tunnel of Arizona State University' Wells
Fargo Arena dressed in maroon caps and gowns. Then, led by a color guard,
the Class of 2006 will burst out into a brilliantly lit arena and march
between applauding teachers. Parents, relatives and friends will cheer from
the bleachers.

As the graduates file by, he'll think about the 5 percent who are not there.

Kids such as Elijah, who passed his AIMS test on the first try. But he was a
child with too many burdens to graduate. He dropped out to care for his sick

He'll remember the 10 or so kids who never passed AIMS. They stayed all four
years and earned all their credits. A few of their parents will call or stop
by his office, pleading for an exception, getting angry.

"He'll come in and finish in the summer, just let him walk," they'll say.
"I've got 30 relatives flying in."

But Rasmussen will hold his ground.

He will tell them: "If I were to allow your student to walk without a
diploma, what I have done is lessen the moment for all those who made it. It
belittles those students who met the challenge."

He tells their child: "We've worked with you since the fall. We've done our

He says to himself: "My God, it's hard."

Reach the reporter at pat.kossan@arizonarepublic.com.