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Published in Print: November 29, 2000, as Arizona Poised To Revisit Graduation Exam

Arizona Poised To Revisit Graduation Exam

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Top Arizona education officials signaled their willingness last week to delay a requirement that high school students pass a state test to receive a diploma, in light of high failure rates and evidence of a persistent academic-achievement gap between minority and white students.

In a Nov. 21 press conference, state schools Superintendent Lisa Graham Keegan recommended that the state board of education take another look at the present timeline for implementing high-stakes testing and seek feedback from schools and communities on possible changes to that schedule.

Ms. Keegan's announcement came amid complaints that too many students are failing the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards test for it to be used as a graduation hurdle. Under the state's current policy, this year's juniors must pass the reading and writing portions of the AIMS test before they can graduate; a similar requirement for mathematics applies to this year's 9th graders, scheduled to graduate in 2004.

Scores on the test suggest that not all students are being taught the content in the state's academic standards, and that "policies will need to be realigned to sustain public support" for the accountability program, the elected schools chief, a Republican, acknowledged. Ms. Keegan stopped far short, however, of calling an end to her years-long efforts to make standards and accountability work in Arizona.

"Entertaining this change for kids is the only responsible thing to do," Ms. Keegan said in an interview Nov. 22. "But AIMS is not going anywhere, and standards are not going anywhere. If the graduation standard does move and people in certain corners of the state breathe a sigh of relief, that's the wrong attitude to take."

State school board President Janet Martin, who appeared with Ms. Keegan at last week's press conference, said the board would meet this week to discuss a process for soliciting views on potential changes to the testing requirements.

Ms. Martin said the board would expect districts to describe where they are in their efforts to align curricula with the state standards, and to explain why they want the graduation requirements pushed back and for how long.

Testing Woes

The road to implementing meaningful academic standards and a method of holding students and schools accountable for them has been rocky for the Grand Canyon State. The same can be said for a growing number of other states around the country, including Ohio, Wisconsin, and Massachusetts. ("Mass. Teachers Blast State Tests in New TV Ads," Nov.22, 2000.)

Debate erupted the first time the AIMS was administered. Only 12 percent of the sophomores taking that exam in spring 1999 passed its math section, prompting parents and teachers to complain that the state's schedule for phasing in high-stakes testing was too aggressive.

The dismal results in math prompted state education officials to make new rules this year that require high school students to take two consecutive years of math—algebra in 9th grade and geometry in 10th grade—and that retool the math portion of the AIMS to match the curricular changes. The state board also agreed to move back the graduation requirement in math from 2002 to 2004.

Educators hailed those changes, as well as a recently passed measure championed by Republican Gov. Jane Dee Hull and Ms. Keegan that raises the state sales tax to provide new funding for education. But some groups have continued to voice skepticism about using the AIMS as a graduation requirement. Last week's announcement drew cautious praise from some quarters.

"Our concern from the beginning was the timeline for implementation," said Panfilo Contreras, the executive director of the Arizona School Boards Association. "The reality is that for school districts to change in terms of curriculum takes time and resources."

Penny Kotterman, the president of the Arizona Education Association, was in Florida when Superintendent Keegan made her announcement last week. But Ms. Kotterman said the move showed state officials were noticing educators' concerns.

"There has been a great deal of anxiety and disagreement around the AIMS test," the leader of the National Education Association affiliate noted.

Ms. Keegan said any change to the graduation-requirement timeline would be intended to level the playing field for students.

"I would love it if we could stick to the deadlines we have for the graduation requirement—it's clearly the biggest pressure we have to get kids up to the standards," Ms. Keegan said. "But the problem is there's more pressure on the kids than on the adults. We're literally asking them to outperform their schools. That's why we're recommending the board consider several 'public shaming' measures for schools that are already used in other states."

The superintendent recommended last week that the board adopt a new rule, similar to a policy in Texas, that would require a school to show progress in reducing the achievement gap between students from different socioeconomic groups to qualify as a "successful" school under the state accountability system.

She also urged the state board to ask the legislature for the authority to withhold aid from schools that failed to test all students as required by the accountability system.

Scores Raise Concern

Ms. Martin, the board president, expressed confidence that the requirement in reading and writing wouldn't need to be delayed more than a year. And she said she "would be very uncomfortable with anything beyond 2006 for the math."

While she praised the standards and the AIMS, Ms. Martin said there was reason to question whether all students in the state were receiving an equitable public education. "The information we're getting back from schools as we look at scores is these kids are not having the opportunity to learn what they need to pass the tests," Ms. Martin said.

The state board was scheduled to meet this week. But education department officials said any major changes to the state testing program would probably not come until the board meets in February.

Vol. 20, Issue 13, Pages 16,18

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