AIMS test exception rebuffed
The Arizona Republic
Apr. 7, 2006

Court: English-learners must pass to graduate

Chip Scutari and Anne Ryman
About 3,000 high school seniors who struggle to learn English will have to pass the AIMS test to get a diploma because an appeals court Thursday temporarily blocked a judge's order exempting them from the requirement.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling also prevents the state from divvying up $21 million in fines for school districts with students who are called English-language learners.

In late March, Arizona schools chief Tom Horne had asked the appeals court to set aside a ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Raner Collins that would have required the state to distribute the funds based on how many English-language learners are enrolled in each district. Collins had forced lawmakers into action this year on a 6-year-old court order by handing down daily fines that reached $21 million. The appeals court issued the stay pending a decision on the appeal filed by Horne. The outcome of the appeal will probably not be known until late July when a three-judge panel is scheduled to hear the case.

Horne called Thursday's news "a huge legal victory" for the state.

"This could be a major event that will restore control of the education system for the people through their elected representatives rather than having the people be controlled by an aristocracy of life-tenured judges,"
Horne said. "I've 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, whose class-action lawsuit prompted the fines, said he will file a motion today that will ask the court to remove the AIMS test as part of the appeal.

"This is a disappointing result," Hogan said. "I hope it's just because the court didn't understand the situation for these kids. They hardly took any time at all in issuing this."

The Class of 2006 is the first in state history whose students must pass the reading, writing and math sections of the achievement test or they will not graduate. The Arizona Department of Education said it's unclear how many of the 3,000 English-learner seniors are on track to fulfill the rest of their graduation requirements apart from AIMS.

Currently, 31 percent of Arizona seniors, or 19,500, still have not passed all three parts of the AIMS test. As of this spring, only 18 percent of ELL seniors had passed the test in the Phoenix Union High School District.
Students took the reading and writing parts of the AIMS test earlier this spring and took the math test on Tuesday. District spokesman Craig Pletenik said school officials have always approached the test with the attitude that the students need it to graduate.

"We have never deviated from that goal," he said. "We have not let politics enter into our efforts to have our students achieve."

The Arizona State Board of Education agreed last summer to allow seniors to earn bonus points toward their AIMS scores if they make good grades in their core classes. It's possible that some seniors who fail this round could be eligible to earn bonus points toward their AIMS scores if they earn good grades in their core classes.

More than 154,000 students in Arizona speak foreign languages, mostly Spanish, and are struggling to learn English. The situation is believed to be a main reason for Arizona's high dropout rate as well as the inability of many of the children to adjust to life in Arizona.

Earlier this week, GOP lawmakers got a long-awaited day in Collins'
courtroom in Tucson to defend a new state law that would pump $32 million into schools next year to improve instruction for students struggling to learn English. Under the new law, schools would get an initial increase in funding to help deal with English-learners. But after that schools would have to divert federal funds they receive for poverty-related programs to cover the remaining costs of teaching English.

Gov. Janet Napolitano let the Legislature's plan go into law last month without her signature after vetoing two previous efforts. The original Flores vs. Arizona lawsuit was filed on behalf of a Nogales family in 1992, claiming the state failed to provide adequate programs to help students learn English.

Horne has said the fines were inappropriate and the money should be spent on a legislative plan to help English-learners was approved earlier this month.

Schools had been planning to spend the $21 million on after-school tutoring, summer programs and teacher training. The one-time allocation would have been worth about $136 for every English-language learner on top of the $358 they now receive annually. But school officials were waiting until they got the money to start spending it. Several school officials expressed skepticism that they would even see the money because the court case has been so drawn out.

Kent Paredes Scribner, superintendent of the Isaac School District in Phoenix, said the legal soap opera is hurting students. "It's unfortunate that students continue to wait for adequate funding," Scribner said.