Turf War Erupts in Ariz. Over Delaying Graduation Test

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Little doubt remains that Arizona will delay its requirement that every student pass a state test in reading, writing, and math to graduate. The debate now is mainly about how long that delay should be, and who should make the final decision on that policy change.

The state board of education voted unanimously on March 26 to launch the months- long process of changing the existing timeline for using the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards, or AIMS, as a graduation test for public high school students. The board took no official position, however, on a report last week from an independent research group hired by the state education department that recommended the requirement be pushed back to the graduating class of 2005 in all subjects, with a lower passing grade for mathematics until 2007.

"The bottom line is a majority of parents believe there should be a graduation requirement," said board President Todd Bankofier. "It's really just a matter of when."

Some Arizona legislators have their own answer to that question. Two days after the state board voted to consider delaying the requirement, the Arizona Senate passed a bill, introduced by Democrat Jay Blanchard, that would push it back in all subjects until 2004. Under the current schedule, the requirement for reading and writing kicks in next year with this year's high school juniors, and in 2004 for math with this year's freshmen.

A Few Ingredients

The initial recommendation to re-examine the graduation requirement's timeline came from the test's most outspoken supporter, state schools Superintendent Lisa Graham Keegan. Ms. Keegan's call came late last year amid complaints that too many students were failing the AIMS for it to be used as a graduation hurdle. ("Arizona Poised To Revisit Graduation Exam," Nov. 29, 2000.) Only 12 percent of the 10th graders taking the 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 education officials to make new rules last year requiring high school students to take two consecutive years of math—algebra in 9th grade and geometry in 10th grade—and retool the math portion of the AIMS to match the curricular changes. The state board also agreed to move back the graduation requirement in that subject from 2002 to 2004.

Last fall, the board asked schools and parents for comments on the question of when the AIMS exams should count as a graduation requirement, but there was little consensus. Many did agree, though, that a number of changes needed to be made.

"Districts and schools need more time to implement standards-based curriculum and instruction, and students need expanded opportunities to learn the content on which they are tested," analysts from WestEd wrote in its report commissioned by the state board and released last week. WestEd is a nonprofit research, development, and service agency based in San Francisco that serves as one of the nation's federally funded regional educational laboratories.

"Many schools across Arizona have yet to take all the necessary steps to prepare the 2002 and 2004 graduation classes for high-stakes consequences on AIMS," the report says.

Ms. Keegan said last week that WestEd's recommendations were sound, and she reiterated her conviction that more than a few years' delay in the graduation requirement was unacceptable. She also urged the legislature to leave policy changes on AIMS to the board of education.

"We need one body to make this decision, and we need to speak with one voice," the schools chief said. "Right now, the one hand doesn't know what the other is doing."

But even lawmakers who agree the board is the proper authority on AIMS argue that the legislature should have some say in the process.

"I don't want to set up a tug-of-war situation with the board, but when constituents get frustrated, they're not calling the board of education— they're calling their legislators," said Sen. Ken Bennett, a Republican who chairs the Senate's education committee. "I want to see the legislature involved in this to a much greater degree."

Most officials are predicting Sen. Blanchard's bill, sent to the House last week, is unlikely to go far. Gov. Jane Dee Hull, a Republican, has already thrown her support behind the board of education.

"I think she would just as soon prefer to see [AIMS] implemented as planned, but she's been very up front about saying, 'I don't think this [bill] is going to make it,' " said the governor's spokeswoman, Francie Noyes.

Vol. 20, Issue 29, Page 21

Published in Print: April 4, 2001, as Turf War Erupts in Ariz. Over Delaying Graduation Test
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