Year after year, Arizona schools chief Tom Horne withheld from the federal government and the public some of the state’s worst AIMS scores. Arizona took advantage of an off-the-books deal Horne says he struck with the U.S. Education Department in 2003 to exclude most English learners — students who are not proficient in English — from the official record of exam scores.
But the federal Education Department is now barring the state from continuing the practice because it violates No Child Left Behind, the law enacted three years ago that requires public schools to ensure all children — regardless of race, ethnicity, disability or income — meet academic standards.
Chad Colby, a department spokesman, denied Arizona ever had a special agreement.
He called Horne’s actions “a complete sham.”
Now, dozens of schools that in past years failed to meet federal standards but avoided detection because of the scores’ removal risk losing control of their funding.
Horne is suing the federal Education Department in an attempt to override its ruling that English learners be counted with their peers.
“Basically, I’m fighting for 100 schools,” Horne said of the campuses that fail to meet federal standards because of English learners’ scores.
Every state is required to measure students’ improvement through standardized math and reading exams, like Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards.
When a majority of the state’s English learners are included in this year’s AIMS results, as many as a quarter of the state’s elementary and middle schools failed to meet federal standards on the exam, a Tribune analysis found.
The consequences for falling short can be dire.
The first sanction is being labeled a poor school. Failing multiple years brings heavy restrictions on federal funding and, in worst cases, a mandated overhaul. There are a few maneuvers that failing campuses can make to avoid penalties, such as proving high attendance.
The law allows states to exclude English learners during their first year in public school. Each state must consider other exemptions on a case-by-case basis, Colby said.
However, Arizona granted all schools the right to exclude English learners for their first three years enrolled here.
“The fact is that their appeals process was a sham because they’re exempting every school,” Colby said. “It was a complete sham.”
Other states with larger immigrant populations, such as California and Texas, have been required to report scores for nearly all their English learners.
In Arizona, more than 150,000 students have limited English proficiency, said Amy Rezzonico, a spokeswoman for Horne. They comprise about 15 percent of the state’s students.
Horne contends that Arizona schools are at a particular disadvantage because state law — a law that Horne has strongly endorsed and enforced — requires that all students be tested in English, regardless of their grasp on the language.
Colby dismissed Horne’s argument, pointing to similar laws in California and Florida that do not keep those states from reporting all students’ scores.
California has about 2 million students with limited English proficiency, making up almost a third of the state’s student population, said Bob Bernstein, accountability administrator for California’s education agency. Those students are part of the reason why roughly 40 percent of schools there have missed federal requirements.
“It certainly makes it difficult, especially when trying to compete against states that have very low percentages” of English learners, Bernstein said. “You’re bound to look worse.”
California and other states have lobbied the Education Department for permission to exclude more of their English learners.
Since 2003, Arizona has diverted most of its English learners’ results to a separate database that it doesn’t provide to the federal Education Department. The data also is not used in the public report cards the state publishes on each school.
The Tribune, through a public records request, obtained a database from the state that includes this year’s complete AIMS results for each school. Only English learners enrolled in public schools for less than a year and students with serious mental disabilities were excluded.
Without the English learners, only 12 percent of elementary schools had their thirdgraders fail to meet federal requirements. With those students, that number doubles to 24 percent.
As many as 120 schools statewide risk sanctions this year, the analysis shows, despite the fact that they were compliant with federal standards in previous years under Arizona’s now- contested system.
Spread across the entire state, the impact of adding English learners hardly budged average math and reading exam scores, which each dropped less than one percentage point.
But some individual schools’ passing rates plummeted.
The AIMS results released to the public earlier this month state that Palomino Primary School, in the Paradise Valley Unified School District, had 62 percent of its third-graders pass the reading exam and 61 percent pass math.
However, the complete results show that only 28 percent of students in the east Phoenix school passed the reading and 29 percent passed the math.
Arizona is not unique in struggling to educate English learners, said Scott Palmer, a Washington, D.C., attorney who represents states on No Child Left Behind issues.
Many states struggle to satisfy the federal law’s requirements and have deemed some schools as weak due to their large immigrant population. For at least two years, the Education Department has discussed softening regulations governing which English learners must be counted, Palmer said.
“The issue is not, should we include or exclude English language learners? That’s not it at all,” he said. Rather, the question is how soon the Education Department should judge such students with their peers and whether to consider factors beyond time spent learning the language.
The regulations are now set up to make English learners’ progress a primary concern, as their exam scores directly affect a school’s standing, Colby said. “We’re making sure that these (minority) groups receive the same education as the white kids.”
Nevertheless, Arizona’s schools were measured without most of their English learners included during the three years that Horne has been in office.
In his lawsuit, Horne accuses the Education Department of violating an oral contract that allowed the English learners exclusion.
For months in 2003, the state and federal agencies were at loggerheads over the reporting of English learners’ scores under No Child Left Behind. Horne said he refused to give Arizona’s approval to ratify the then-pending law until federal officials conceded to exclude those students from reporting requirements for their first three years in school.
With the deadline to enact the law — as well as a massive ceremony scheduled in the White House Rose Garden — approaching, Horne said federal officials dropped their objections.
There was one condition.
“They said they wanted (the agreement) oral so other states wouldn’t copy it,” he said, “to avoid other people finding out about it and saying they want it for themselves as well.”
Colby denied Horne’s allegation.
However, in an e-mail sent to the Education Department last year, Mary Jane Pearson, a former federal official responsible for overseeing Arizona in 2003, confirmed that she was aware of the state’s negotiations. Aside from confirming she wrote the e-mail, Pearson declined comment.
Regardless of whether such a deal was actually reached, state records show Arizona excluded a majority of its English learners with impunity until this year.
In April 2005, records show the Education Department sent Horne a “monitoring report” that detailed problems with reporting of the state’s AIMS scores.
Since then Horne has been warned that unless the state includes the English learners, it risks having its entire educational system uncertified.
That would cost the Arizona and its schools hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding. Rather than face that, Horne said he intends to report all the scores the Education Department requires if he loses the lawsuit.
However, Horne argued that all such agreements are as legally binding as a signed contract, adding that several similar deals were made at the same time as Arizona’s.
In the weeks before No Child Left Behind was ratified, Horne said federal officials were working feverishly to secure every state’s approval — a requirement to enact such legislation.
That requirement gave the states leverage to broker several pacts that were not made public.
“They did a lot of special deals with different states on exceptions,” he said. “It was clearly quid pro quo at the time.”
- Tribune writer Andrea Falkenhagen contributed to this report