State lawmakers have taken the first steps toward scrapping the AIMS test as a high school graduation requirement.
A little-known provision slipped into the budget two weeks ago by state Rep. Rich Crandall, R-Mesa, sets up a seven-member task force to find a replacement for the 12-year-old test. Depending on what the panel finds, it could make this year's incoming senior class the last one to have to pass Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards to get a diploma.
And future seniors may have no test at all as a barrier to graduation.
Crandall, president of the Mesa Unified School District governing board, said he foresees the committee coming up with a replacement exam, possibly using the ACT or SAT college entrance exams as a basis. But he said it may make no sense to make passing it a requirement to graduate.
In fact, Crandall said any high-stakes test should be moved earlier - much earlier: He said students who can't pass a third-grade reading test should not become fourth-graders.
The move has angered state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne, who said he was purposely cut out of the process to keep him from providing any meaningful information about AIMS to legislators. Horne used an expletive to describe Crandall and called the idea of scrapping the test "crazy."
LEFT OUT OF THE LOOP
Crandall admitted keeping Horne in the dark. He said there was no need to include Horne, whose job Crandall said is to implement policy, not make it.
But Crandall also acknowledged he did not want to give Horne a chance to undermine the change.
"There are some people who have some big, bold ideas to move Arizona forward," he said. "If we had tried to go to the Arizona Department of Education (which Horne heads), they would have thrown up every reason why that wouldn't have worked as opposed to every reason why it would."
Horne, however, wasn't the only one left out of the loop.
Sen. Karen Johnson, R-Mesa, who chairs the Senate Committee on Education, also knew nothing about the budget provision until after it was adopted. And Rep. Mark Anderson, R-Mesa, her House counterpart, said he was aware of Crandall's effort but not part of it.
AIMS traces its roots to efforts by lawmakers, business leaders and others to ensure that students are being taught the skills they need to graduate. There are three components: math, reading and writing.
But there were several false starts, with legislators repeatedly postponing using AIMS scores as the path to a diploma.
The requirement finally kicked in in 2006 - but not before lawmakers agreed to let students use their good grades in courses to supplement the scores by up to 25 percent and be able to graduate. Lawmakers voted earlier this year to extend those bonus points but slowly phase out the bonus to just 5 percent.
There have also been complaints the test has been "dumbed down," a charge Horne denies. He said, though, that passing scores have been altered, a combination of both federal standards under the No Child Left Behind Act, which measures student progress, and the consensus of Arizona teachers as to what constitutes a student being "proficient" in a subject.
But Crandall said perhaps the biggest problem is that AIMS does not show how well Arizona students are doing in comparison with the rest of the nation.
He said that's why he favors using a college-prep test, supplementing the questions with those from the AIMS exam, similar to what is done in Michigan.
But Horne said Michigan pays $115 a student to administer and score the new test, versus the $11 per student Arizona now pays for both AIMS and the national TerraNova test.
Crandall, however, said Horne is getting ahead of himself in assuming that Arizona will follow Michigan's lead. He said the only requirement in the new law is that the task force "will come up with a better model that is college-prep-based."
He said using the SAT or ACT would also get more high schoolers focused on the idea that education does not end with 12th grade.
CHANGES FOR TEST?
Horne said the whole argument presumes that starting over with something else is better.
"I'm favorable to some changes to AIMS," he said, "but not to dump it and start something new but to do continuous improvement of it."
Crandall countered that Horne has made it clear "he has no intention whatsoever in modifying AIMS at all." Nor does Crandall believe AIMS can be fixed.
"We've been trying something for 12 years," Crandall said of the effort to improve education in Arizona. "The path we're on isn't going to get us there."
Johnson, who learned about the change after it became law, said she has never been a big fan of AIMS. But she's not convinced that scrapping it is the answer "after all the money we've spent and the changes that we've made."