The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday temporarily blocked a judge's order that exempted those students from having to pass the test to graduate. So now the graduation status of those seniors, who just took the final round of Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards test before the end of the school year, hangs in the balance.
If they haven't passed all three portions before graduation, they can try to take the test again in July. But some school officials wonder if they'll even bother.
"At some point, the kids are just going to say, 'I've got to move on with my life,'" said Craig Pletenik, spokesman for the Phoenix Union High School District. "We're probably going to have a hard time bringing kids back in the summer."
Phoenix Union, like many districts, won't let seniors who have failed to meet all graduation requirements, including AIMS, walk with their classmates at graduation.
That means that even if the appeal is denied later, and those seniors are granted a diploma, they've missed out on the graduation ceremony and possibly some college admission deadlines.
Only 18 percent of Phoenix Union's nearly 600 ELL seniors had passed all three portions going into the last round of testing.
"We're still hopeful a majority (of ELL students) will get through, but at the end of the day, we may have 50 kids or 100 kids who don't make it," Pletenik said.
The saga began years ago, when a judge said the funding for ELL programs in Arizona was arbitrary and inadequate. When nothing was done to satisfy the court requirement, U.S. District Court Judge Raner Collins imposed daily fines, which reached $21 million and forced lawmakers into action. Collins also ruled that the fine money be distributed to districts based on the number of English-language learners, and that the students were exempt from the AIMS graduation requirement.
Arizona schools chief Tom Horne asked an appeals court to set aside that ruling until the outcome of an appeal. A three-panel judge is set to hear the appeal in July.
Horne called Thursday's decision "a huge legal victory" for the state, adding that he has been "saying all along that they (every student) should be studying for the test."
Attorney Tim Hogan, of the Center for Law in the Public Interest, filed an emergency motion Friday asking the Court of Appeals to reconsider its ruling. If Hogan's motion is granted, ELL students who don't pass AIMS but meet all other requirements would be able to walk with their classmates at graduation.
Regardless, seniors who don't pass all three sections of the AIMS test still have some options. They can earn bonus points toward AIMS scores with good grades in their core classes, thanks to a state law passed last summer. So, it's possible that some students who failed the test still will be able to graduate once those bonus points have been factored in.
"We just don't know how many of these kids will be positively affected by that," Hogan said.
For students who want to pursue higher education, the answer could be Maricopa Community Colleges. Students who enroll there without a high school diploma or GED will be tested and placed in either developmental courses or college-level courses to work toward a degree.
And students who have a GED or enough community college transfer credits likely can be admitted to state universities, such as Arizona State University.
"We're feeling our way along a little with this," said Tom Cabot, assistant dean for enrollment management at ASU West.
ASU officials will try to be flexible and evaluate individual situations, he said, but the university doesn't have specific exceptions outlined in the admissions policy.
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