AIMS to cost 1,000 a diploma
The Arizona Republic
May. 18, 2006

State: 2% of seniors won't pass exit exam

Anne Ryman and Pat Kossan


About 1,000 of Arizona's high school seniors will not get a diploma this spring because they failed the AIMS test.

That represents about 2 percent of the Class of 2006, which is much lower than the 5 percent to 10 percent that state officials predicted months ago.

Many of those kids and their parents are feeling devastated, or will be when they receive the final AIMS math scores this week. But the low failure rate also reflects a multiyear effort by education officials and lawmakers to make the high-stakes test easier to pass, partly to avoid a public backlash.

Preliminary results released Wednesday show that most seniors, or 94 percent, have passed the reading, writing and math parts of Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards. The Arizona Department of Education estimates an additional 4 percent passed mainly because of state law allows them to earn bonus points from core classes.

Since the test began in 1999, state officials have made the test easier and lowered the passing score to 59 percent in reading and 60 percent in math. The state Legislature passed a law last year that allows students to raise their AIMS scores by as much as 25 percent if they earn A's, B's and C's in core classes.

"I think there is a great deal of frustration among business people I talk to," said Susan Carlson of the Arizona Business and Education Coalition. She said many business leaders who seek a better-educated workforce believe the test still is too easy.

But state schools chief Tom Horne said he is pleased with the results, saying they indicate that students are learning the material.

"I think the test is just about right," he said.

Classroom reaction

On Wednesday, schools began receiving their math results for seniors. High schools will spend the next few days crunching math scores and factoring in bonus points to see who gets diplomas.

At Dysart High School, students in Cathie Sylvester's math class were on edge, waiting to find out how they fared.

Sylvester also was nervous. She teaches Standards-Based Mathematics, which helps students, mostly seniors, learn the math skills tested on AIMS. Last fall, 15 of her 19 students passed AIMS math after spending 2 months in her class.

She hopes to have even better results this time.

Phoenix Union High School District predicted less than 1 percent of its seniors won't graduate because of AIMS. Many of those will be English-language learners, district spokesman Craig Pletenik said.


The state Education Department won't have breakdowns until June on how many English-learners failed to graduate because of AIMS.

Going into the spring round of the test, about 3,000 seniors learning English still needed to pass AIMS.

At Esperanza Community Collegial Academy, a 65-student charter school in Phoenix, two of the five seniors won't get a diploma because of the exam. Both are English-learners.

"They're disappointed, of course," said Dorelyn Kunkel, the school's director. "They've been under a cloud."

The English-learners issue has ended up in court with another challenge. Both suits seek to suspend or stop AIMS as an exit requirement. The advocacy groups bringing the suits argue the state has failed to fund English-learner programs and education in general to justify a high-stakes test.

Less political fallout

The high passage rates mean that far fewer parents will be upset over their kids not getting a diploma.

Carlson, of the Arizona Business and Education Coalition, acknowledged that failing the exam can devastate a student's family. But she said many business leaders are unhappy over the state's handling of its main tool to measure if students are learning to standards. "I think there is a feeling that AIMS has become a political football," she said.

Stanley Rabinowitz of WestEd, an education policy and research group, said the state's process of creating academic standards is more important than AIMS test results.

Rabinowitz, who worked with the Arizona State Board of Education to design AIMS and set a passing score, said the skills that students need before they graduate have led schools to change their curriculum and teachers to change their lesson plans. The state also added tutoring and after-school learning programs.

The goal, he said, is that zero students should fail AIMS. State leaders have taken steps toward that goal by changing test content, passing scores and adding bonus points.


Future of test

The difficulty of the AIMS test is expected to remain unchanged for the Class of 2007.

Horne and JoAnne Hilde, president of the State Board of Education, said they won't recommend in the next year that test questions be made harder or the passing score lowered.

Eventually, though, Horne said the state will need to raise the bar.

Even with no changes in the test, the Class of 2007 may find it even easier to pass.

A recently passed law allows students to factor in grades from elective classes such as band and woodshop to help their AIMS scores. This year's senior class could factor in only core classes.

Reporter SherryAnne Rubiano and Karina Bland contributed to this article. Reach the reporter or (602) 444-8072.