English learners look good for AIMs
Arizona Daily Star
May 12, 2006

By Jeff Commings

arizona daily star

Tucson, Arizona | Published: 05.12.2006 http://www.azstarnet.com/allheadlines/128771

In one corner of a closely watched education debate, lawmakers and lawyers are fighting to give high school seniors classified as English-language learners the right to graduate without taking Arizona's assessment test.

In the other corner, state officials are trying to prevent any changes to state law that requires all students to pass the AIMS test to earn their diplomas.

It's a fight that has traveled from local classrooms to the federal courthouse in San Francisco, with each side claiming victory along the way.

But local educators say they've largely ignored the debate to concentrate on their job: getting diplomas to all high school seniors, especially those who struggle with AIMS. A Star review shows they appear to have been successful, too.

In Southern Arizona, just a few seniors who are English-language learners ELLs in school jargon are in danger of staying home on graduation night because they haven't passed AIMS and don't have the grades needed to augment their scores. But across Arizona, almost 3,300 of about 5,000 ELL students aren't expected to graduate because of AIMS.

Those numbers may improve next week, when the final round of AIMS math scores is released. Officials say ELLs tend to do well in math because it requires much less knowledge of English.

But the court cases appear to be far from over. One of three pending rulings suggests AIMS be dropped as a graduation requirement for all students on the grounds that it unfairly targets minority and low-income students. Another wants the state to give more money to districts with a lot of ELL students for increased tutoring and smaller classes. The last just wants the AIMS requirements dropped for those not proficient in English.

"I'm checking my e-mails daily," said Steve Holmes, director of language acquisition for the Tucson Unified School District.

TUSD the state's second-largest district stands to have the most students left behind in Southern Arizona. But the total of 24 students who might not graduate is about the same number as in previous years, when AIMS was not a graduation requirement, Holmes said.

Some experts expected that large number of students would not graduate this year, despite officials allowing grade augmentation and giving students an easier AIMS test than in prior years.

The opposite result can be attributed to rigorous tutoring and teacher development and support that have been in place for years, some of it in anticipation of this year's graduation requirement, officials say. Those efforts have helped all students, but they say ELLs have prospered most because they were viewed as the group most in danger of being left behind, so districts have focused on them.

In the Sunnyside Unified School District, where 10 percent of the Class of 2006 consists of ELL students, only nine students still have not passed AIMS. Amphitheater Public Schools, Tucson's second-largest district, has fewer than 10 ELL students not graduating.

Officials say they've always pushed for all students to pass AIMS, but they wish the state law weren't so tough on those who haven't mastered English. State schools Superintendent Tom Horne has been a major proponent of requiring ELL students to be proficient in English to graduate, and AIMS is a way to gauge that proficiency, he said recently.

Egla Gutierrez, a graduate-to-be at Desert View High School, doesn't think a full knowledge of the English language is necessary to earn a diploma. She passed AIMS as a junior and has a friend who also passed all three sections, earning an "exceeding" score on the math part. That friend began learning English six months ago.

"It was really hard for most of us," said Gutierrez, 17, who has lived in Tucson for six years. "We have different levels of English."

It took Gutierrez about six hours to finish the writing portion of the test, using a thesaurus to help her with some words. But she had a lot of supporters, including a Sunnyside High teacher who helped with math and Desert View Principal Jonathan Hanson, who offered words of encouragement.

"He kept on telling me I could do it, and that was in my mind, I think, while I was taking the test," said Gutierrez, who plans to go to Pima Community College on a scholarship and then study psychology at the University of Arizona.

For the few ELL students who still still are waiting to learn their fates, it's likely that officials won't tell them to keep an eye on the courts. Final rulings on the pending cases aren't likely before graduation ceremonies in two weeks, which means students must choose between taking the AIMS test again in July or earning a GED later.

Officials would like to see their students pass AIMS rather than drop out. In Sunnyside, summer tutoring will extend into evening and weekend classes. In TUSD, each student who needs it will get 16 hours of AIMS tutoring through July.

"We should be at zero (ELL students not graduating), and we're not going to stop until it is zero," said TUSD's Holmes.

But in other districts, more tutoring requires more money.

"I think the state still needs to pony up and provide more resources so we can help these students," said Guillermo Zamudio, Nogales Unified School District superintendent. In his district, 20 ELL seniors probably won't graduate.

No matter what official word comes from the courts, districts say they'll continue to work to get all students to pass AIMS and graduate, whether they are ELLs or not.

"It's a moral imperative to make sure our kids pass AIMS," Holmes said.

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● Contact reporter Jeff Commings at 573-4191 or at jcommings@azstarnet.com.