Reasons to rejoice and to work harder
The Arizona Republic
Jun. 8, 2006

Could anything be more bittersweet?

Almost literally on the eve of graduation day, Arizona's high school seniors learned that far fewer students than expected had failed to meet the standards of the AIMS graduation test.

In the Glendale Union High School District, every student qualified to march on graduation night. Likewise in Deer Valley, where just 23 of 1,950 seniors failed to pass all three portions of the AIMS test but graduated nonetheless because they accumulated sufficient "bonus points" in their core classes.

The news was nearly as good elsewhere. In the Phoenix Union High School District, where many educators feared the AIMS failure rate would be devastatingly high, just 32 students - less than 1 percent of the senior class - did not graduate for having failed the test.

Statewide, educators peg the failure rate at 2 percent of the 2006 class, the first cadre of high school seniors whose matriculation depended on the test results. That is less than half of the failure rate predicted in a best-case scenario just a few months ago. On campuses throughout the state, the sense of relief was palpable.

Yes, but . . . still.

Still, there are students who could not make it over the bar. It is one thing to argue academically about the inevitability of trade-offs, about the mathematical certainty that because we have established a set of standards, some percentage of students will fail to meet them, no matter what. We knew it would come to that for some.

It is another matter entirely to be that senior. To open that fateful envelope holding the stark, sorry evidence that whatever effort you put into the test, it wasn't enough to make the grade. For those students and their families, that is pure heartbreak. There is no other way to say it.
Difficult as it may be, those students must keep faith in themselves.

"We have not given up on anybody," says Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne. Even after graduation, those students will have more opportunities to pass the test. They must try.

The march has been long - 10 years, plus - to this fateful first year linking high school diplomas and passage of AIMS. And, of course, arguments over its legitimacy continue.

A Maricopa County Superior Court judge refused to suspend the test results as a graduation requirement. But Judge Kenneth Fields reserved the possibility that he might do so retroactively following another hearing, now set for July.

But attitudes about the test are changing. Arizona State University's Education Policy Studies Laboratory - no champion of "high-stakes" testing - recently released survey results showing that support for the test is on the advance, especially among Hispanic families.

Given that English-language learners constitute a substantial proportion of students failing the exam, the growing support of the test among Hispanics is a powerful statement on behalf of measurable standards.

There seems little doubt that a primary goal of AIMS is being met. Students are working harder because of it.

Justin Benson, an 18-year-old senior at Mesa Westwood High, is no fan of the test. But when he saw that he had earned enough points to pass the math section, the reaction he expressed to Republic reporter Anne Ryman surely warmed the hearts of AIMS advocates everywhere:

"I had my doubts," he said, "but then again I studied really hard."