AIMS test survives challenge for now
The Arizona Republic
May. 16, 2006

Judge will allow denial of diplomas

Anne Ryman

A judge on Monday declined to suspend the AIMS exit exam as a graduation requirement for this year's high school seniors.

That means seniors who failed AIMS won't get a diploma this spring and many won't be allowed to walk during commencements in coming weeks. They could receive diplomas later if the courts were to overturn the exam.

In his ruling, Judge Kenneth Fields of Maricopa County Superior Court denied a request to suspend the exam immediately but scheduled a hearing for a preliminary injunction for early July. He could decide at that time to halt the test as a graduation requirement, including retroactively, until the merits of the case are ruled upon. He said it would be far easier to issue diplomas later if the plaintiffs prevailed in court than to get students to return diplomas if the court later upheld AIMS.

The ruling is part of a larger lawsuit, Espinoza vs. State of Arizona, filed in April, which seeks to overturn the high-stakes exam as a requirement to get a high school diploma.

The lawsuit, filed by two advocacy groups, argues that the state fails to put enough money toward education. Without proper funding, many Arizona students don't receive the services and programs they need to reach the state's academic goals and pass the AIMS test, the suit says.

Small percentage
The ruling came even as school district officials predicted that only a small percentage of seniors would be held back because of the state-mandated test.

Three large school districts said the numbers will be small because of a law passed last year that allows students who earn good grades in core classes to raise their AIMS scores by up to 25 percent.

Mesa Public Schools and the Paradise Valley Unified School District predict that only 1 percent to 1.5 percent of their senior classes may not graduate because of AIMS.

Phoenix Union High School District officials say 32 students, or less than 1 percent, won't graduate this month because they failed AIMS.

At Trevor Browne High, two students out of a senior class of about 400 will not graduate because they failed the test.

Seventeen others failed but will be able to graduate using bonus points.

For the most part, the students who won't graduate because they failed AIMS are English-language learners, district spokesman Craig Pletenik said.

Arizona schools chief Tom Horne said the percentage of seniors who pass may be in the "mid to high 90s."

AIMS, or Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards, tests students in reading, writing and math.

The controversial test has been given to high school students since 1999, but the Class of 2006 is the first that must pass all three parts to graduate.

Math results coming
Going into the spring exam, about 31 percent of Arizona seniors, or 19,500, still had not passed all three parts of the test. Results of the spring exam are not available yet. Seniors have received their reading and writing scores, and math results will be released Wednesday.

Fields said in his ruling that the plaintiffs present a "credible challenge"
that Arizona's system for funding education is inadequate to provide the knowledge needed to pass AIMS.

Ellen Katz, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said she was disappointed in Monday's ruling but is hopeful they will succeed in the end.

Dawn Ressler, assistant principal at Mesa's Westwood High School, said the last-minute legal battles over AIMS are unfair to students who are unsure whether they will graduate.

"If you're going to make a high-stakes test, stick to it," Ressler said.
"These kids are on an emotional roller coaster."

Justin Benson is one student at Westwood who doesn't have to worry about the court decision. The 18-year-old passed writing in the fall and reading this semester; he recently found out he earned enough bonus points to pass math.

"I had my doubts, but then again I studied really hard," said Benson, who plans to attend Chandler-Gilbert Community College.

Despite his AIMS victory, Benson is no fan of the exam: "It's kind of unfair because there are people who can't pass and then they won't be able to graduate."

Teaching to the test
Arizona is one of 26 states that has, or plans to start, exit exams.

Proponents argue that the tests will improve student learning and provide more consistent education among schools. Critics say the exams cause teachers to teach to the test.

Exit exams are under attack in other states, as well.

California is being sued over its exit exam, which, like Arizona's, is being required this year for the first time to get a diploma.

Last week, an Alameda County judge suspended California's exit exam after finding it discriminatory.