Hopefuls spar over exit exams
The Arizona Republic
Oct. 9, 2006

 Testing is issue in Nov. election

Mike Cronin

If Tom Horne still heads Arizona's public schools after Election Day, passing exit exams to earn a diploma will remain a part of every Arizona student's high school experience.

"That's the big issue," Horne said more than once during a debate Sunday afternoon with challenger Jason Williams.

About 100 people attended the forum at Burton Barr Library in downtown Phoenix.Horne, 60, hammered home the importance of high school students passing a "reasonable test" before they get a diploma.

That type of test is crucial to ensure that Arizona's students are prepared to enter the 21st-century workforce, said Horne, a Harvard-educated lawyer who has served as state superintendent since 2003.

Williams rejected the idea of an exit exam.

Teachers should evaluate students using many measures of performance instead, he said. And that process must begin in the lower grades to better monitor student progress.

The pro-Williams crowd exploded in applause when he asked why wait until the 10th grade to monitor how well students are learning.

The creation of "community corps" in all of Arizona's school districts is central to his vision of improving the state's K-12 education system, Williams said.

Those groups would consist of parents, school officials and business leaders, said the former sixth-grade teacher and executive director of the Phoenix chapter of Teach for America.

Attack on Horne

Williams attacked Horne for educational failures that have occurred "on his watch," including a high dropout rate.

To tackle that problem, Williams proposed a three-pronged approach. The strategy would include cultivating community as well as teacher mentors who begin guiding students in elementary school, halting funding cuts to guidance-counselor and social-worker positions, and having a broad curriculum in high school.

Horne touted a new position in the Department of Education created to combat dropouts.

"We give (students) tutors to help them, workbooks, practically everything but get them up in the morning," he said.

Regarding teaching students who are learning English, Williams called for "an aggressive program of language acquisition and a serious assessment" of where pupils are in their English abilities.

Tests called 'a joke'

The current self-tests students take are "a joke," Williams said. He advocates the option of teaching many languages to young students.

Horne responded that he has increased a staff of six to 26 whose job it is to scour the state for the best ways to teach English learners. He said all students should learn Spanish, and should begin to do so early in elementary school.

And he said that it is imperative that public schools try to help parents learn English, too. Otherwise, their children won't learn as well or as quickly, he said.

Williams highlighted his experience as a teacher, something Horne lacks, saying that qualifies to him to become superintendent more than Horne's 28 years of experience developing education policy.

"The attorney general was a lawyer," Williams told the audience. "The surgeon general was a doctor. Isn't it about time the state schools superintendent was a public school teacher?"

Horne countered that the 29-year-old Williams only taught for two years before choosing to run for elected office in a teachers union.

Both candidates agreed that Arizona schools, ranked last in the nation by some reports in per-pupil-funding, need more money.

Horne said he pushed for the state to provide $150 million to raise teacher salaries. A governor-legislative compromise netted $100 million, he said.

"That's not enough," Horne said. "And I'll continue to fight for more."

Both candidates excoriated the federal government's testing policies for disabled students. Under President Bush's education reform law, No Child Left Behind, disabled students must pass exams that test them on reading skills often at a level higher than their actual abilities.

Horne and Williams also agreed that early-childhood literacy was crucial to success later in a student's life.

The candidates

Tom Horne, Republican, incumbent

Current position: Arizona superintendent of public instruction since 2003.

Age: 60.

Education: Harvard College, Harvard Law School.

Other experience: Representative, Arizona Legislature; Paradise Valley
Unified School District board of directors.

Jason Williams, Democrat, challenger

Current position: Before choosing to campaign full time, Williams served as
executive director of the Phoenix branch of Teach for America.

Age: 29.

Education: Boston College.

Other experience: Elected representative, California Teachers Association
State Council of Education; sixth-grade math and science teacher, Oakland,

Reach the reporter at mike.cronin@arizonarepublic.com or (602) 444-7938.