Valley educators welcome AIMS reprieve
The Arizona Republic
Dec. 17, 2005

Pat Kossan
Thousand of students and teachers let out a huge sigh of relief after a federal judge ruled Friday that high school seniors struggling to learn English do not have to pass the AIMS test to get a diploma.

But Arizona schools chief Tom Horne warned students not to let up on their studies.

Horne said he plans to immediately appeal the decision, with hopes of turning it around and keeping the mandate in place for the Class of 2006.

Even if Horne loses the appeal, it won't mean that English-language learners will never have to pass the exit exam to graduate. The ruling indicated the requirement could be reinstated once the state has improved such education to the judge's satisfaction. ELL students still must pass their high school courses to earn a diploma.

The ruling also could reduce by hundreds the number of seniors expected to be denied a diploma next spring because they failed AIMS.

After three attempts through last spring, 3,787 English-language learners from the Class of 2006 hadn't passed the reading, writing and math exams. An additional 734 had passed. The state will release results of October's retake of AIMS next week.

Exactly how long the ELL exemption will stay in place is uncertain. It was widely hailed by educators on Friday, at the same time they worried that students could lose motivation to pass the exam and stop attending tutoring and special classes provided by the state.

The burden lies with the state to prove that it is adequately funding education of English learners and that the system is helping the kids "compete equally" on the test. Horne said he will help lawmakers create and pass a funding bill as quickly as possible and then ask the judge to eliminate the exemption for the Class of 2007.

Horne called making an exception for students learning English "academic welfare, something they did not ask for but was pushed on them." He also worries teachers will concentrate on the students who must pass AIMS to graduate, leaving language learners behind. "Many (language learning) students will feel humiliated and degraded by a policy that will indicate to them that we do not believe they can learn," Horne said.

English-learning students still must take the test, which is given only in English, and the state will continue using their scores to judge how well schools are doing. State law requires schools to teach only in English.

Attorney Tim Hogan of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest said it would be wrong to require English learners to pass AIMS when they are being shortchanged by the state.

"It is the most unfair thing imaginable to hold these kids to the same standard when the state has not provided the funding the courts said was needed," Hogan said.

Some schools have launched special efforts to help those students pass AIMS, offering after-school tutoring and prep classes.

Other schools also have tried to help them avoid the test. They were encouraged to double up their coursework in order to graduate in December to avoid the test mandate.

For example, Phoenix Union High School district's December grads jumped to 500, up from 153 last year. The district has 739 seniors who are English-language learners, and only 48 have passed AIMS. "It would be devastating for more than 600 kids," spokesman Craig Pletenik said.

Mesa Public Schools will graduate 223 students in December, up from 98 last year. Many of those will be from Westwood High, where 60 seniors will graduate early, compared with only 14 last year.

"These are kids who come into a new culture and are trying to learn a new language," Assistant Principal Dawn Resslor said. "It will take some of the pressure off them and allow a greater opportunity to succeed."

But Resslor admitted that it also takes the pressure off the students to work hard preparing for the exam, and she fears their AIMS scores could plummet.