600 Ariz. schools on federal 'fail' list
The Arizona Republic
Aug. 29, 2006

Pat Kossan

Federal officials stamped the words "failure" on hundreds more Arizona schools Monday, but state officials called the decision illogical and absurd.

A record of more than 600 schools, or nearly three times as many as last year, failed to meet federal academic requirements, the state reported.

The main reason: Federal officials changed the rules. For the first time ever the state was forced to include AIMS test results in math and reading from students who are in their second or third year of learning English.
That puts more schools on the road to potentially failing four years in a row and triggering state intervention into daily operations.

The contrast highlights a debate that is playing out among educators over how Arizona should measure its educational performance.

State officials want to exclude students in their first three years of language learning from the federal "adequate yearly progress" counts, expected to be released Friday. They also separate them from Arizona's annual ranking of schools and overall AIMS exit-exam results. They argue that including students still learning English skews the picture.

The U.S. Department of Education fears these children will not get the attention they need unless Arizona counts their test scores. Its theory: Who gets measured gets taught.

But Arizona's schools chief Tom Horne calls the federal mandate absurd.

Horne sued the federal government in July to stop the inclusion of student test scores until their fourth year of English language classes. Until the suit is settled, the scores must be added. Adding test scores of kids who don't yet fully know English is impractical and idealistic, Horne says. It pushes the data downward, painting an unfairly negative picture of Arizona's education system.

"By saying a school has to fail if all their students are not proficient one year after coming here from Mexico, you make it impossible for schools to succeed," Horne said. "That destroys the incentive."

Federal officials also tightened up on just how much help schools can give special-education kids in completing the AIMS test. It also required the state to expand the number of students tested from those in third, fifth, eighth and 10th to all kids in third through eighth grades, as well as high school sophomores.

Horne says that these changes in federal rules are responsible for nearly 400 additional schools failing and that about 112 of those schools failed only because they were required to include English-language learner scores.

School officials also winced at the changes.

If a school doesn't meet the federal standard for even one year, the failure grade is posted on the Arizona Department of Education's Web site as part of the district's and the school's report card. Not making adequate progress, even for one year, is bad publicity. For example, last year, such reputable districts as Paradise Valley and Mesa failed the federal standards. This year, there will be more.

Yet school officials say parents don't pay much attention to the federal rating. Once parents understand how easy it is to fail, they usually disregard it, says Joe O'Reilly, Mesa Public Schools testing director.
Mostly, it's school officials and teachers who get annoyed.

"You never want a negative label," O'Reilly said.

But for schools that continue to fail, consequences can be dramatic.

The state is required to intervene in the daily operations of schools that fail to meet the adequate progress standard four or more years. It must send in consultants to ensure the schools make changes, such as improving curriculum, student tracking and improving teacher training. If a school continues to fail, federal law requires the state to make bigger changes, such as replacing a principal and teachers. Arizona has 66 schools that have failed the measure four or more years in a row, up from 54 in 2005.

Federal education officials have suggested that Arizona create a translation of the AIMS test that is easier for English-learners to understand.