October 30, 2004
States have faced protests, lawsuits and cries for lastminute changes when implementing high-stakes graduation tests that now apply to more than half of all high school students nationwide.
In 2006, it will be Arizona’s turn for controversy.
That’s when the state has vowed to start withholding diplomas from high school students who fail to pass Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards test. About 40,000 students in the class of 2006 who failed AIMS on their first try as sophomores retook the test this week as juniors and are awaiting word on whether they will need to try again this spring.
"Outrage is the natural reaction to school accountability because these tests expose flaws in the education system," said Florida Department of Education spokesman McKay Jimeson. "The initial shock will ultimately result in people wanting to solve the problem."
Florida talked tough about its high-stakes graduation test for years but then created lastminute graduation alternatives in 2003 after 12,000 students failed and hundreds of parents — especially from the Hispanic and black communities — launched protests.
An emergency law that Gov. Jeb Bush signed in June 2003 allowed students to receive their diplomas if they could pass alternative tests such as the SAT, ACT, College Placement Test or military entrance exam. The law also allowed students to complete adult education classes or accelerated summer courses in lieu of passing the high-stakes test.
California also bowed to pressure in 2003 and postponed enforcement of its high-stakes test just 10 months before withholding diplomas from thousands of students. Massachusetts, meanwhile, pressed forward with its test despite a class action lawsuit in 2002 and complaints about demoralized students and soaring dropout rates.
Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne said he has watched the backlash in other states and is prepared.
"We’ve been operating on the assumption that a lawsuit is a certainty, and we’ve planned accordingly," Horne said.
Arizona has already postponed enforcement of AIMS twice, Horne said, so now he’s encouraging state policymakers to stay the course.
"We’re not postponing again," he said. "I think our credibility is at stake."
He said test questions in spring 2005 will be more closely aligned to classroom instruction than ever before, and he expects about 90 percent of Arizona students will pass AIMS by the end of their senior year — a passing rate similar to Florida, Massachusetts and other states.
But Arizona will have further to go than these states to reach this goal. Only 39 percent of Arizona sophomores passed the math portion of AIMS on their first try in 2004.
Massachusetts Department of Education spokeswoman Heidi Perlman said 68 percent of students in the class of 2003 in her state passed the test as sophomores and 95 percent passed the test during retakes in their junior and senior years.
About 73 percent of sophomores passed Florida’s math test on their first try in 2002, and 59 percent passed the reading test. Eventually, about 90 percent of Florida students passed the test by the end of their senior year.
Bob Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, said 19 states have implemented highstakes tests so far, and five more — including Arizona — are phasing their tests in. He said all of these states have faced problems with enforcement.
"These tests are based on the notion that the school system is failing because kids and teachers are not working hard enough, and if you just raise the bar and whip them, they’ll perform better," he said.
John Wright, president of the Arizona chapter of the National Education Association, said tests such as AIMS can provide useful information to educators — but states should look at multiple measures of a student’s growth. He said states such as Florida that have created alternatives for students are on the right track.
"What we have protested all along is having a single high-stakes test," he said.