Acting on the advice of state schools Superintendent Jaime Molera, the Arizona board of education voted last week to again postpone a plan to require high school students to pass a statewide test to graduate. This time, the measure was delayed until 2006.
Though the latest delay was supported unanimously by board members and endorsed by Gov. Jane Dee Hull, a Republican, the move drew sharp criticism from several lawmakers, some of whom predicted the decision, the fourth such postponement since 1996, would further erode public confidence in the state’s ability to enforce educational standards.
“I think it’s terrible,” Sen. Ken Bennett, a Republican and the chairman of the Senate education committee, said when asked about the Aug. 27 decision. “To move it back four years at once—I don’t think there’s any way we can get the best effort of students between now and then.”
But Mr. Molera argued the postponement would give the state more time to make desperately needed changes to the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards, the state test more commonly known as AIMS.
His critics in the legislature, the schools chief said, “are talking out of both sides of the mouth right now. On one hand, they say they want accountability for schools; but on the other, they’re saying the hammer has to come down only on the students. We have nothing in place right now to hold the schools accountable if kids are not meeting the standards—and that’s unacceptable.”
The superintendent has proposed conducting audits, beginning with the next academic year, to ensure schools’ curricula are aligned with state standards. He also suggested a plan that would allow schools to offer students who can’t pass the graduation exam alternative routes to earning a diploma.
“Schools have said it’s just not going to work if we focus only on a high-stakes test,” Mr. Molera said. “AIMS is not going away, because students still have to take the test, but the question is what to do when they can’t meet the standards that way.”
Fear of Lawsuits
The initial proposal to revisit the AIMS testing timeline came late last year from Mr. Molera’s predecessor, Lisa Graham Keegan, amid complaints that too many students were failing the test. (“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.
Those dismal results in mathematics prompted education officials to make new rules that require high school students to take two consecutive years of math—algebra in 9th grade and geometry in 10th grade— and that revamp 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.
The board finally agreed on the 2006 date proposed by Mr. Molera, who took over the education department when Ms. Keegan resigned in May. In November, the panel plans to consider the rest of Mr. Molera’s plan for revamping the state testing program.
Mr. Molera said the changes were necessary, in part, because the state would likely face lawsuits without them.
Already, a public advocacy group, the Tucson-based William E. Morris Institute for Justice, has filed a federal civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Education, arguing that the test is unfair because disproportionately high percentages of minority students are failing it.